Though hearing loss can masquerade as a short term memory issue, it’s also linked to memory problems in the elderly.

An elderly person with hearing loss may seem to have a short term memory issue (they didn’t forget what they heard; it’s just that they heard something different than what was actually spoken).

However, a Johns Hopkins study shows that elderly folks with hearing loss are more likely to acquire problems with thinking and memory than are elderly people with normal auditory function.

Why might there be a connection with memory problems?
The study reports that the elderly volunteers who had hearing loss showed, over six years, a cognitive decline that was 30-40 percent faster than in subjects with normal sound perception.

The report (Jan. 21, 2013 online JAMA Internal Medicine) says that cognitive decline correlates directly with amount of hearing loss.

All of the test subjects had normal brain function at the beginning of the investigation. “Our results show that hearing loss should not be considered an inconsequential part of aging,” begins Frank Lin, MD, senior study investigator, “because it may come with some serious long-term consequences to healthy brain functioning.”

Dr. Lin stresses the importance of doctors discussing hearing loss with their patients. Over the past four years, my elderly mother has seen tons of doctors for a variety of issues.

Very amazingly, not one doctor ever inquired about her hearing or in someway broached the subject (I’ve been present at quite a few of her first-time appointments with a new doctor), even though it’s clear, when being asked questions and spoken to by doctors, she has trouble making out their words.

Isn’t the ability to hear medical instructions or explanations of extreme importance?

The patient may nod their head and think they heard one thing, when in fact, something else was actually spoken. I’ve witnessed this with my mother.

Dr. Lin estimates that 27 million U.S. people over age 50 have some degree of hearing loss.

My sister, 53 and a doctor, has been diagnosed with moderate bilateral hearing loss. Her two daughters have always been prone to loud outbursts of excitement. Perhaps being around all the loud vocals has damaged her hearing.

Dr. Lin says that the link between memory problems and hearing loss might be explained by the social isolation that often comes with the inability to decipher words efficiently. Social isolation, he adds, is linked to cognitive problems.

On the other hand, continues the paper, hearing loss may force the brain to divert too much energy to sound processing, and thus not enough on thinking and memory. Or maybe whatever’s causing the hearing loss also causes memory problems, he supposes.

The study subjects were adjusted for variables that contribute to cognitive decline such as stroke, high blood pressure and diabetes.

The next step is to launch a bigger study to see if hearing aids in the elderly can slow cognitive decline.