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Hearing loss linked to decline in thinking abilities in older people

By Kathy Oxtoby

Hearing loss in older people is linked to a faster decline in thinking abilities, compared with those with normal hearing, a large study from the US suggests.

What do we know already?

Many people experience hearing loss in later life and people find they are more likely to forget things as they get older. But the connection between hearing loss and more severe cognitive (thinking) difficulties isn’t fully understood.

Some studies suggest that hearing loss is linked to some decline in people’s thinking abilities when they get older. We don’t know if older people who have hearing loss are more at risk of developing dementia than those whose hearing is not impaired.

To find out more, researchers studied 1,984 adults whose average age was 77. At the start of the study in 1997, none of those who took part had problems with their thinking abilities, although more than half of them had hearing loss. People took tests of their thinking abilities five, eight, ten, and eleven years after the study began.

What does the new study say?

Researchers found that people who had hearing loss were more likely to experience significant problems with their thinking abilities, compared with those whose hearing was not impaired. People with hearing loss at the start of the study were 24% more likely to have a significant decline in thinking abilities by the end of the study, compared with people with normal hearing.

Average scores on tests of thinking abilities worsened during the study for both the group with hearing loss and the group with normal hearing. But the group of people with hearing loss had a bigger decline in thinking abilities, and it happened faster. The researchers calculated that it would take on average 8 years for a person with hearing loss to have a significant decline in thinking abilities, compared with 11 years for a person without hearing loss.

How reliable is the research?

This is a large, long-term, well-conducted study, which means its results are likely to be reliable. There are many reasons why older people with hearing problems may also experience a decline in their thinking abilities. So the study can only show us that there is a link between hearing loss and thinking difficulties. It does not show that hearing loss causes these problems.

We don’t know from the study whether hearing aids can help reduce the chances of thinking problems for people with hearing loss.

What does this mean for me?

Many older people have hearing loss. This does not mean they will get problems with thinking and memory, although these difficulties are also common in older people. People with hearing loss may find it harder to concentrate because they cannot hear easily, or may feel isolated. These things can make it harder to think properly.

If your hearing is worsening, you should see your GP. A hearing aid may help you to hear better. If you are concerned that you are having trouble with memory and thinking, you can also see your GP.

Source:

Lin FR, Yaffe K, Xia J, et al. Hearing loss and cognitive decline in older adults. Journal of the American Medical Association. Published online 21 January 2013.

Jan 23, 2013