Hearing Loss and Brain Shrinkage With Age
Follow-up studies needed to show whether treating hearing problems could delay mental decline, experts say
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A hearing expert not involved in the study said it's "interesting," and raises the question of whether treating hearing impairment can prevent brain-tissue loss or slow mental decline.
"But we need a study to test that, and that study has yet to be done," said Dr. Ian Storper, an otologist at Lenox Hill Hospital, in New York City.
Even though researchers have found a link between hearing loss and mental decline, Storper noted, "that doesn't prove causation." Both hearing loss and brain-volume loss are common parts of aging, and there are many other variables that may be related to both, Storper added.
Lin's team did account for some other health factors -- like whether people smoked, or had high blood pressure or diabetes. And there was still a connection between impaired hearing and greater brain-volume loss.
But Lin agreed that what's ultimately needed is a trial testing whether hearing loss treatment slows mental decline.
"In the end," Lin said, "what everyone cares about is, what can we do about it?"
There are, of course, already reasons to treat hearing loss, Storper said. In some cases, treatment can be as easy as removing impacted ear wax, he noted.
But often, older adults need a hearing aid or assistive devices that make it easier to hear in specific situations -- while talking on the phone or watching TV, for example.
According to the U.S. National Institute on Aging, almost one-third of Americans aged 65 to 74 have at least mild hearing loss -- as do nearly half of those aged 75 and older.
If impaired hearing is one contributor to mental decline and dementia, Lin said, then treating it could have a big impact on public health.