If it seems like every day brings something new to worry about, take heart—this is something that you can do something about. People with moderate hearing loss were twice as likely to experience cognitive decline as their peers, while those with severe hearing loss faced five times the risk, according to a study from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine that was written up in Next Avenue’s article “A Delay In Getting Hearing Aids Can Mean More than Hearing Trouble.”
Another study, from the University of Colorado at Boulder, found that the brain’s ability to process sound declines, as the person’s ability to hear decreases. The study looked at adults between the ages of 37 to 68 who had their hearing tested and their brains examined. None was being treated for hearing loss, although a few felt that their hearing was not as good as it once was.
The subjects underwent hearing tests, and tests using visual stimuli to see how they were processing information. They also underwent electroencephalograms that showed that not only were their brain’s visual centers firing when seeing the stimuli, but the hearing center was also active in those who had suffered some hearing loss.
In other words, parts of the brain that used to process sounds were now processing visual signals, as the hearing part of the brain was being repurposed to process images.
The brain repurposing different areas for different functions, is known as “cross-modal recruitment,” which is not a new concept. Other areas of the brain can be affected, including the pre-frontal cortex, which is in charge of higher-level thinking and executive functions.
If this part of the brain is needed to help overcome hearing loss, then there’s less capacity for putting new information into long-term memory, for comprehending and responding to sounds and conversation.
The researchers also found that people in the study regained some of their losses, after being fitted with very high-quality hearing aids.
Unfortunately, many adults delay getting their hearing tested and getting hearing aids. The stigma associated with getting hearing aids as a marker of aging, is one reason. The other reason is that hearing loss is a very gradual process and people get used to not being able to hear.