Hearing loss may be linked to mental decline

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Chief Medical Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Loss of hearing represents more than just difficulty hearing sounds. It can lead to social isolation and depression. A new study suggests that hearing loss may also be linked to loss of memory and thinking skills.

In a study published online yesterday in JAMA Internal Medicine, Johns Hopkins researchers found that declines in thinking skills happened faster during a six-year period among people with hearing loss than among those without it. Among the nearly 2,000 volunteers, all over age 70, those with hearing loss we also likely to develop “cognitive impairment,” defined as a substantial reduction in the score on a key test called the Modified Mini-Mental State Examination. The researchers estimated that it would take a hearing-impaired older adult just under eight years, on average, to develop cognitive impairment compared with 11 years for those with normal hearing.

This isn’t the first time that researchers have explored possible connections between hearing loss and brain function. Some saw what the Hopkins team saw, while others found no connection between hearing loss and thinking skills. The strengths of this study compared to earlier ones are:

•   It included older people who had normal tests for memory and thinking at the start.

•   All volunteers had standardized hearing tests performed by professionals.

•   The same methods for testing hearing and brain function were used throughout the study.

Keep in mind that this new study shows an association. It does not prove that hearing loss causes a decline in thinking skills. The work also raises a huge question: can treating hearing loss prevent or slow an age-related decline in brain function?

What’s the connection?

If hearing and thinking skills are truly connected, there are several plausible reasons that might be so.

Hearing loss can lead to greater social isolation, something to which older people are already prone, and social isolation is a definite risk factor for cognitive impairment and dementia. Like impaired vision, diminished hearing can lead to less brain stimulation, another risk factor for a decline in thinking skills. It’s also possible that by making the brain work overtime to process the signals it is getting from the ears, hearing loss pulls away energy from the “thinking” parts of the brain.

Check your hearing

Up to two-thirds of adults older than 70 have some hearing loss. Doctors don’t routinely check for this problem, so it may be up to you to identify it. Since it often comes on slowly, you may be unaware you are having a problem.

Answering “yes” to three or more of the questions below, from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, suggests that it’s a good idea to talk with your doctor. He or she may refer you for a formal hearing test.

  • Do you have a problem hearing over the telephone?
  • Do you have trouble following the conversation when two or more people are talking at the same time?
  • Do people complain that you turn the volume of the radio or television up too high?
  • Do you have to strain to understand conversation?
  • Do you have trouble hearing in a noisy background?
  • Do you find yourself asking people to repeat themselves?
  • Do many people you talk to seem to mumble or not speak clearly?
  • Do you misunderstand what others are saying and respond inappropriately?
  • Do you have trouble understanding the speech of women and children?
  • Do people get annoyed because you misunderstand what they say?


  1. samantha

    The Information provided here is superb and the analytical studies prove that hearing loss can be a reason for mental illness too. Good Job Done sir would like to hear again from you.

  2. Kangume DK

    Am very pleased to read all these and still very interested.Am a Ugandan and live here in Uganda.
    i have a sister,she is a round 21yrs of age and she has got a hearing problem and she doesn’t even talk.but she was not born like that,she was very normal and she was also talking like any other person.And at the age of 5yrs she fell sick suffering from Mumps and after healing,we discovered that she no longer talks.Am asking whether there is a possibility of her ever talking or hearing again.Any assistance please my email address is dkangume@gmail.com and can be contacted on +256774517877.
    Thanks and waiting to hear from you.

    Best Regards
    Doreen Kangume

  3. suzy

    Mental fitness is as important to the body as physical fitness. Possessing good mental health allows us to be creative, to use our mental abilities to the fullest extent, make the most of opportunities and fight stress. When you’re not mentally fit, it can be difficult to perform complex tasks well. Practicing mental fitness daily will help you achieve and maintain a mentally healthy state.

  4. melanie

    yeah but not all people who have lost their ability to hear may not be lined to mental decline.. Although there are some but not all.

  5. Jennifer

    I have a 9 year old daughter whom is hearing impaired. Why are all of the developmental studies done on the elderly? I understand that they are the large percentage of the demographic whom suffer from hearing loss, but I feel my daughter is suffering greatly in all of the areas discussed in this article. Can anyone advise of a study that has been done on pediatric hearing aide users?

  6. Agustin Tomas Alvarez

    Con nuestro audifono intellitec la mayoria de pacientes recupera audicion y cuando son jovencitos hasta el 100% lo `podemos de mostrar pero debe de ser con pacientes que no hayan usado ningun audifono ya que estan destrozados debido a las amplificaciones que soportado siempre decimos un paciente con una perdida de 75 y 80% que no haya usado audifonos nos gustaria que lo probaran gracias Agustin

  7. emedicalpoint

    Its a very useful articles. I would be happy to publish this asrticles at emedicalpoint.com so that people can be more and more aware about hearing loss.

  8. C McLay

    I do not agree that hearing loss leads to loss of memory or thinking skills. Maybe if you’re 80 years old! My memory is as good as ever and I have significant hearing loss.

  9. C McLay

    If a person w/ hearing loss wears hearing aids like me I find it does really help, but not so much in a really loud background situation . I think they have to be really good hearing aids as well.

  10. Hoperetreats

    Very good post, informative and thorough.

  11. Kia Parts dealer

    Thank you for this information. I have found it very useful.

  12. Seoarcher

    I am over 40 and find my ability to hear declining. I am very sensitive to certain noises. Sometimes when my children talk in the back of the car, I don’t seem to hear their conversation, it’s almost like a background noise.Sometimes I think about the time I had ear buds in my ears as a teen listening to music, all the fitness with loud music in a background… Now I am more careful with the way I listen to things, it seems I deal with quiet low noises better. I wonder if there is an exercise to improve my hearing. I also suffer from allergies with buildup of fluid behind my ears. Is this all connected?

    • Seoarcher

      I will be checking the “folic acid therapy” we are getting 🙂 I feel am too young to loose hearing or have difficulty hearing.

      amazingly we are deficient on B complex and a lot of diabetic patients need B12 shots on regular bases.

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