Recently, a prominent researcher in the field of hearing loss suggested a simple change in the way we talk about hearing loss. Rather than frame it as a disability, said Dr. Justin Golub of Columbia University Irving Medical Center, “I like the idea of hearing fitness.”
“Hearing loss” is a negative term. For people who don’t want to admit they have hearing trouble, it invites the dismissive response: “I’m fine.” But who wouldn’t want to be as fit as possible, especially if it takes little to no work on their part?
Dr. Golub is the lead author on a November 2019 paper in JAMA Otolaryngology-Head Neck Surgery, which found an association between cognitive impairment and what is generally considered “normal” hearing. In 2011, Johns Hopkins’ researchers led by Frank Lin, published the result of a longitudinal study on a large cohort of older adults showing that those with moderate or more severe hearing loss were at a greater risk of dementia. The greater the hearing deficit, that study found, the greater the risk of developing dementia. What Golub and his colleagues have now found is that even minor loss, within the so-called normal range of 25 dB or less, is associated with lower cognition.
Using two major national databases as their source, the Golub team studied data on hearing and cognitive performance in 6451 people age 50 and over. This study, unlike previous studies of hearing loss and cognition, focused on people with hearing loss in the range usually considered normal. They considered all levels of hearing in that category, down to what would be considered “perfect” hearing, the ability to hear at zero decibels. (Dogs can hear at -5 to -15 decibels.)
After adjusting for demographics and cardiovascular disease, the study found that decreased hearing was independently associated with decreased cognition. The study did not look at whether hearing loss causes cognitive decline. Nor did it look at whether correcting hearing loss with hearing aids offsets the correlation.
“Can Hearing Aids Help Prevent Dementia?” That question was the title of the article in The New York Times Magazine where Golub’s hearing fitness quote appeared. We don’t have an answer yet but Frank Lin and colleagues will conclude what is expected to be the definitive study on hearing aids and their deterrent effect on cognitive decline in 2022. (For those who are interested in learning more about the study, Aging and Cognitive Health Evaluation in Elders (ACHIEVE), funded by the National Institute on Aging, here’s a link to an interview in AudiologyOnline on the study and other hearing-related public-health issues.)
Speaking to the Times Magazine, Golub mused, “We always frame [hearing loss] as a disability.” Telling college students that blasting their ears with loud noise is going to make them more susceptible to dementia 50 years later, he said, isn’t going to be much of a deterrent. “But if you say, ‘Hey, hearing is good for your brain, the more hearing you have the better,” that has immediate implications.”
“Hearing Fitness” is good for people at any age. Whatever it is about hearing loss that aligns it with an increased risk of dementia is of course of paramount interest. But poor hearing has a host of other physical and psychological ramifications, some of which themselves are a risk factor for cognitive decline.
Hearing fitness means taking care of the hearing that you have, whatever your age. And if it begins to decline, as it often does with age, correcting it. Cost has been a prohibitive factor for many up till now, but this year the FDA will announce guidelines for an over-the-counter hearing aid that will cost a fraction of existing FDA-approved hearing aids. Hearing aid companies and the consumer electronics industry are already offering products that are as good as some hearing aids at even cheaper prices. Costco is reportedly the nation’s largest hearing aid dealer (except for the VA), with volume permitting lower prices. Having hearing professionals on staff insures responsible service. Insurance companies are increasingly covering hearing aids, finally understanding their role in healthy aging. In some states, Medicaid covers hearing aids. Even that dinosaur Medicare may soon revise its hearing aid policies.
Tuesday March 3 is World Hearing Day. Although hearing fitness may be a distant goal for the half a billion people worldwide with disabling hearing loss, those of us in prosperous countries can make a start by taking care of our hearing, and by treating it promptly when problems develop. Hearing help comes in all price ranges. Keep your hearing fit!
For more about living with hearing loss, read my books, available at Amazon.com and maybe at your favorite bookstore or library. If it’s not there, ask for it!