Published Wednesday 30 January 2019
By Catharine Paddock PhD
Fact checked by Gianna D’Emilio
Recent research adds to a growing body of knowledge that links hearing loss with cognitive decline, which is a hallmark of dementia and often precedes the disease.
After analyzing 8 years of data from a health study of more than 10,000 men, scientists at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, both in Boston, MA, found that hearing loss is tied to an appreciably higher risk of subjective cognitive decline. In addition, the analysis revealed that the size of the risk went up in line with the severity of hearing loss.
The risk of subjective cognitive decline was 30 percent higher among men with mild hearing loss, compared with those with no hearing loss.
For men with moderate or severe hearing loss, the risk of subjective cognitive decline was between 42 and 54 percent higher.
Subjective cognitive decline refers to changes in memory and thinking that people notice in themselves. Such changes can be an early indication of cognitive decline that objective performance tests do not pick up on.
“Our findings,” says lead study author Dr. Sharon Curhan, who works as a physician and epidemiologist, “show that hearing loss is associated with new onset of subjective cognitive concerns which may be indicative of early-stage changes in cognition.” They could also “help identify individuals at greater risk of cognitive decline,” she adds.
Dementia and early diagnosis
The World Health Organization (WHO) have identified dementia as a public health priority that requires more research, especially into causes and modifiable risk factors.
Today, there are around 50 million people living with dementia worldwide, and this figure is set to rise to 75 million by 2030. There are currently no effective treatments that prevent or reverse the course of the disease. However, early diagnosis can do much to improve the quality of life for people with dementia and those who care for them. Identifying early decline in memory and thinking capacity could also help develop treatments that are more effective than those that target later stages of dementia, note the authors.
They go on to explain that subjective cognitive decline, that is, the changes in memory and thinking skills that people notice in themselves, can indicate “subtle features” of cognitive decline that do not show up in objective tests of performance. This is borne out by imaging studies that have linked subjective cognitive function to brain changes that precede dementia. Such findings support the notion that subjective cognitive function lies on a spectrum that includes mild cognitive impairment and predementia.
Hearing loss and cognitive decline
In the United States, a national survey has estimated that around 23 percent of those aged 12 or older have some level of hearing loss. The majority of individuals affected have mild hearing loss. However, in those aged 80 or older, moderate loss is more common than mild loss.