More than just sound

Hearing loss can lead to decreased cognitive functioning, brain shrinkage

Is your hearing loss an annoyance, an inconvenience or worse?

Hearing loss happens so slowly and so subtly that we may think that all we need to do is adjust to it over the years. We’ll learn to live with it. We’ll turn up the volume on the TV. In conversations, we’ll be sure to focus so that we hear what people have to say.

But learning to live with it isn’t the answer.

Hearing loss doesn’t slow down as we get older. For those of us who are age 65 or older, a third of us already suffer from some hearing loss. By the time we reach 75, more than half of us will face difficulty hearing.

Use it, don’t lose it

Fortunately, hearing loss is treatable.

And now there’s a sense of urgency for seniors — and their health professionals — to get help.

According to a growing body of scientific evidence, older adults with hearing loss are more likely to develop problems thinking and remembering than older adults whose hearing is normal. In other words, hearing loss can increase your risk for dementia.

One study at Johns Hopkins University showed that although the brain becomes smaller with age, the shrinkage seems to be fast-tracked in older adults with hearing loss.

Another Johns Hopkins study showed that test subjects with hearing loss experienced faster declines in their cognitive abilities than in those with normal hearing. On average, older adults with hearing loss developed significant impairments in their cognitive abilities 3.2 years sooner than those with normal hearing.

Researchers are now studying the cognitive differences between folks with hearing loss who use hearing aids and those who don’t. And that latter number is high: Fewer than 15 to 20 percent of people in the U.S. with clinically significant hearing loss use hearing aids.

The everyday effects

Hearing loss that develops with age is called presbycusis (prez-buh-KYOO-sis). It’s when the piercing sounds of sirens, smoke alarms and doorbells can become harder to distinguish, and we can’t easily catch higher-pitched voices either.

We also notice that sounds get distorted and messages get twisted: One might hear, “Use the eggs in the bag,” but what’s actually said is, “Use the ice from the bag.”

Hearing loss that goes on for some time can make people depressed, anxious or even paranoid. This can worsen to the point that there’s less getting together with family and friends and less interest in social outings, which can be detrimental to one’s health.

How it happens

The most frequent cause of age-related hearing loss is the natural breakdown of nerve cells in the inner ear. Sound reaches the inner ear, but the breakdown of nerve cells prevents proper hearing, according to WebMD.

This is known as sensorineural hearing loss. Long-term medical conditions, such as high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes — or other problems with circulation — may also contribute to age-related hearing loss.

It also can result from chronic exposure to noisy environments, childhood infections or stroke.

Talk to your physician

Your doctor can test your hearing and suggest how to best manage problems. Hearing aids today are considered tiny microcomputers and include programs that can respond to and handle various sounds.

Hearing devices can be fine-tuned to give you the sounds that mostly closely fit what you’re used to hearing. They can also improve the sounds you want to hear as well as block background noise you’d rather do without.

You’ll pay for the technology. One hearing aid (and most folks need two) cost an average of $2,300, according to AARP. (Learn how to keep costs down at

Other accommodations

Many public places such as museums, theaters and auditoriums offer ear buds or ear phones for patrons with hearing difficulties. At home, personal listening systems can be connected to the telephones, laptop computers and televisions.

Many public places in Minnesota, including churches, city meeting rooms and clinic lobbies, are outfitted with hearing loops that allow hearing-aid users to tap into on-site sound systems.

Learn more about loop hearing technology in Minnesota at or

Note: Dr. Michael Spilane is taking the month off. This article was adapted from a story that originally appeared on, a site offering specialized monthly content for seniors.


American Academy of Audiology

Hearing Loss Association of America

National Council on Aging

What Is Hearing Loss?