Patients with hearing loss have a greater risk for dementia, falls, hospitalizations, and other physical and mental health problems. For years, researchers have known that hearing loss was associated with changes in the brain, but were unsure whether these brain changes happened before or after the hearing impairment occurred.
Recent research conducted as part of the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging was able to track significant differences in brain changes over time in participants with hearing impairments compared to those with normal hearing.
Participants were given a complete physical, including hearing tests, as well as yearly magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Researchers found that those with hearing loss at the start of the study lost “an additional cubic centimeter of brain tissue per year,” and that the loss was mostly in areas of the brain that are used to understand sound and speech. These areas are also important to memory.
Frank Lin, Ph.D., M.D., the lead researcher in this study, said that the findings underscore the importance of early intervention. “If you want to address hearing loss well,” Lin says, “you want to do it sooner rather than later. If hearing loss is potentially contributing to these differences we’re seeing on MRI, you want to treat it before these brain structural changes take place.”
Lin plans to conduct future research to determine the extent to which treatment for hearing loss can reduce associated health risks.