Some level of decline in cognitive ability is inevitable as people get older. Forgetfulness is one of these. Difficulty in concentrating is another. But another, and more worrisome outcome, is hearing loss.

More than 35 million Americans suffer from hearing loss. Some are unaware they have hearing loss while most don't realize hearing loss might impact their cognitive health, which is defined as the ability of being able to clearly think, learn and remember. Cognitive health is an important part of brain health.

Stopping cognitive decline is all but impossible, but recent studies suggest age-related cognitive decline might be slowed down. The great news is that understanding the link between hearing loss and brain fitness can help people get started on the road to better overall health.

There is a growing body of studies suggesting older people with hearing loss are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Studies have also associated hearing loss with a faster rate of cognitive decline. Why is this so?

The answers vary but among the most common has to do with the cognitive load borne by the elderly. In cognitive psychology, cognitive load refers to the amount of working memory resources a person has. The cognitive load theory, which explains this, is built on the premise the brain can only do so many things at once. As a consequence, we should be intentional about what we ask our brain to do.

Hearing loss places an oversized burden on a person's cognitive load. The cognitive load of an elderly person with untreated hearing loss is much greater than someone without this malady. The former will see his brain work far too hard as it strives to understand speech and sound. An overworked brain doesn’t work efficiently.

Another reason has to do with the physical structure of our brain and its mass of neurons or brain cells that store memories. Over time, and especially among the sedentary and mentally unchallenged, brain cells can shrink from lack of stimulation. Among the neurons that shrink are those that receive and process sound.

A more frightening reason has to do with social isolation, which is a state of complete or near-complete lack of contact between an individual and society. Social isolation is one of the more terrifying by-products of aging. Hearing loss can worsen social isolation.

A person who has difficulty hearing conversations and socializing might prefer staying home rather than risk scorn and ridicule from his peers. But the more isolated a person becomes, the less stimuli his brain receives. And this condition can aggravate hearing loss.

Hearing loss is also associated with a range of other inimical health conditions, including depression and anxiety, heart and cardiovascular disease and diabetes. The physical and social torture that hearing loss inflicts on the elderly can be avoided if caught and treated early on.

Treating hearing loss with the use of a hearing aid is an important factor in slowing the progression of cognitive decline. In this regard, a hearing checkup is vital.

Hearing Loss
People with reverse-slope hearing loss find it difficult to hear lower frequencies. Male voices, for instance, tend to be deep more often than not. Bill Branson/Free Stock Photos

A recent study published in JAMA Otolaryngology suggests the association between hearing loss and impaired cognition could be present at earlier levels of hearing loss than previously recognized. This cross-sectional study of 6,451 individuals found an inverse association between decreasing hearing and decreasing cognition among those defined as having normal hearing.

It recognizes age-related hearing loss as a common and treatable condition associated with cognitive impairment. The level of hearing at which this association begins has not been studied to date, which is a deficit it sought to remedy.

The study observed an independent association between cognition and subclinical hearing loss. The association between hearing and cognition might be present earlier in hearing loss than previously understood.