Vision and Hearing Loss, Their Role in Cognitive Decline

Research has linked hearing impairment with a higher chance of cognitive decline as people age. Based on a new study, vision impairment may pose the same risks.

Using data on two large groups of older adults, researchers found that individuals who had trouble with distance vision had as much as three times the risk of cognitive impairment. Scientists don’t fully understand the connections, but experts say that by taking steps to protect your vision and hearing, you also may protect yourself from cognitive impairment.

Vision and Hearing Problems: A Link to Cognitive Decline?

A Johns Hopkins study found that individuals with significant hearing loss — defined as interfering with conversation — had a 24-percent higher risk of decreased mental capacity. In essence, the hearing loss appeared to speed the rate of cognitive decline.

A recent University of Wisconsin study of 800 individuals in their 50s and 60s linked degraded hearing to the first stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Over four years, the individuals with hearing loss had three times more risk of mild cognitive decline.

One in 28 U.S. adults over age 40 has some form of vision problems. Vision trouble like glaucoma, macular degeneration and cataracts among the aging population may double the number of people with vision loss by 2050.

The new study, published in August, found a clear association between compromised vision and cognition problems. Using the two data sets, researchers measured memory, planning, orientation and other cognitive abilities. They noted that although the research does not offer evidence of a cause of cognitive decline, vision loss may correlate with social isolation and less engagement with the world — and a higher chance of declining cognitive function.

Protecting Your Vision and Hearing

What can you do to help protect your vision and hearing — and, possibly, your cognitive functioning? Researchers suggest that engaging in preventive eye care may be one of the best steps you can take to protect your vision. With early detection of problems, you improve your chances of accessing effective treatment and avoiding serious impairment.

Be sure to get regular eye exams and use protective gear if you participate in activities that could put your eyes at risk, including woodworking and some sports.

To protect your hearing, avoid exposure to loud noises, which can permanently damage the hair cells deep within your ears. Be alert to loud noises that are part of recreational activities, including music, power tools, fireworks, motorboats and sporting events. If you need to raise your voice to be heard, your hearing may be at risk from a noisy environment.

In addition, get regular hearing screenings. Visit your doctor if you experience any warning signs of hearing loss, including buzzing or ringing in your ears following exposure to noise, trouble understanding conversations, or feelings of fullness in your ears after spending time in a noisy setting.

By protecting your eyesight and hearing from everyday hazards — and visiting your doctor for regular screenings — you may take an important step toward protecting your cognitive functioning as you age.