A new study conducted by researchers from the University of California, San Diego and Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute has found that individuals with hearing loss may exhibit differences in the microstructure of certain areas of the brain. These areas are associated with executive function, speech, language processing, and auditory processing. The study involved 130 participants from the Rancho Bernardo Study of Healthy Aging, with an average age of 76.4 years. The participants underwent hearing tests and MRI scans to identify structural differences in their brains. The findings suggest that hearing loss may have an impact on brain health and cognitive function.
Dr. Linda McEvoy from Kaiser Permanente, the lead author of the study, explained that the observed differences in brain areas are not typically implicated in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, which is often associated with memory impairment. Instead, the differences were found in areas related to hearing, speech, and attention. However, further research is needed to fully understand the relationship between hearing loss and dementia risk.
Prof. Jason Warren from University College London, who was not involved in the study, cautioned that while hearing loss can be associated with brain changes and cognitive decline, it does not necessarily mean that hearing loss causes Alzheimer’s disease. The relationship between hearing loss and dementia is complex and may involve a bidirectional causal relationship.
Both Dr. McEvoy and Prof. Warren emphasized the importance of addressing hearing loss and using hearing aids if prescribed. It is currently unclear whether the observed brain structural changes can be reversed or slowed down with the use of hearing aids. However, there is emerging evidence that hearing aids may help slow down these types of changes.
The study highlights the importance of protecting one’s hearing, regardless of age. Prolonged exposure to loud noises and ototoxic medications should be avoided, and precautions should be taken to protect the ears in loud environments. Prof. Warren also stressed the need for improved methods to assess “brain hearing” in addition to peripheral hearing.
Hearing loss is a global issue, affecting millions of adults and children worldwide. According to the World Health Organization, over 5% of the global population has disabling hearing loss. In the United States, approximately 21% of individuals aged 75 years or older experience hearing loss. With the aging population, it is projected that by 2050, nearly 2.5 billion people will experience hearing loss, and 700 million people will require hearing aids.