Does Hearing Influence Brain Function?

Drawing by E. Wagele

Drawing by E. Wagele

I didn’t realize how much energy I put into trying to hear people who mumble and TV shows, especially British ones, until I read the findings of Dr. Lin below. No wonder I feel less stressed watching foreign movies where I can read subtitles.

Dr. Frank Lin, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins and an otologist and epidemiologist, has found links between hearing loss, cognitive decline and dementia. “Hearing loss shouldn’t be considered an inconsequential part of aging,” he said. (This blog is based on an article by Anne Stein in the Chicago Tribune).

Studies on mental decline/hearing

  • In a study involving nearly 2,000 men and women age 75-84, Lin and his colleagues found that over six years, memory and concentration of those with hearing loss declined 30 to 40 percent faster than in people with normal hearing.
  • In a 2011 study of 600 older adults, those with hearing loss at the beginning of the study were more likely to develop dementia than adults with normal hearing. The more severe the hearing loss, the more likely they were to develop dementia; volunteers with mild, moderate and severe loss were two, three and five times more likely to develop dementia than those with normal hearing.
  • Another study by Lin and his colleagues found accelerated rates of brain atrophy in people with impaired hearing compared with those who had normal hearing. They also linked hearing loss to “deep episodes of stress, depression or bad mood,” an increased risk of hospitalization and an increase of falls.
  • Dr. Richard Gurgel, assistant professor of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at University of Utah Health Care, studied more than 4,400 men and women 65 and older; those with hearing loss at the beginning of the study published in 2014 developed dementia at a higher rate and earlier than those without hearing loss.


  • Gurgel, Lin and others are now focused on finding out whether hearing loss causes dementia or is related to dementia. “Dementia has so many causes. I think hearing loss could be a very important component, but there are certainly a lot of factors that play into dementia,” Gurgel said.
  • “Those data from Lin’s studies are very, very solid,” said Dr. Arthur Wingfield, professor of neuroscience at Brandeis University. “But if someone has an age-related hearing loss, they shouldn’t say, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m going to get Alzheimer’s disease.’ It’s not a one-on-one, perfect correlation. Many develop an age-related hearing loss and live a long life, cognitively intact. But the correlation between hearing acuity and cognitive function is there.”

Falling Down

Dr. Frank Lin has also found:

  • People with a 25-decibel hearing loss (mild) were nearly three times more likely to have a history of falling. Every additional 10-decibels of hearing loss increased the chances of falling by 1.4 fold, even when researchers accounted for other factors linked with falling, including age, sex, race, cardiovascular disease and vestibular function. Excluding participants with moderate to severe hearing loss didn’t change the results.


  • People who can’t hear well might not have good awareness of their overall environment, making tripping and falling more likely.
  • “Gait and balance are actually very cognitively demanding,” Lin says. “If hearing loss imposes a cognitive load, there may be fewer cognitive resources to help with maintaining balance and gait.”

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