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Hearing Loss Is Associated with Subtle Changes in the Brain

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Hearing loss affects more than 60% of adults aged 70 and older in the US and is known to be related to an increased risk of dementia. The reason for this association is not fully understood.

To better understand the connection, a team of University of California San Diego and Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute researchers employed hearing tests and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to determine whether hearing impairment is associated with regionally specific brain changes.

In the latest issue of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, researchers reported that individuals enrolled in this observational study who had hearing impairment exhibited microstructural differences in the auditory areas of the temporal lobe and in areas of the frontal cortex involved with speech and language processing, as well as areas involved with executive function.

“These results suggest that hearing impairment may lead to changes in brain areas related to the processing of sounds, as well as in areas of the brain that are related to attention. The extra effort involved with trying to understand sounds may produce changes in the brain that lead to an increased risk of dementia,” said principal investigator Linda McEvoy, PhD, professor emeritus at the UC San Diego Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science, and senior investigator at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute.

“If so, interventions that help reduce the cognitive effort required to understand speech – such as the use of subtitles on television and movies, live captioning, or speech-to-text apps, hearing aids, and visiting with people in quiet environments instead of noisy spaces – could be important for protecting the brain and reducing the risk of dementia.”

McEvoy designed and led the study while at UC San Diego. She worked in collaboration with Emilie Reas and other UC San Diego School of Medicine investigators who gathered data from the Rancho Bernardo Study of Health Aging, a longitudinal cohort study of residents of the Rancho Bernardo suburb in San Diego that launched in 1972. For this analysis, 130 study participants underwent hearing threshold tests in research clinic visits between 2003 and 2005 and subsequently had MRI scans between 2014 and 2016.

The results of the study show that hearing impairment is associated with regionally specific brain changes that may occur due to sensory deprivation and the increased effort required to understand auditory processing stimulations.

“The findings emphasise the importance of protecting one’s hearing by avoiding prolonged exposure to loud sounds, wearing hearing protection when using loud tools, and reducing the use of ototoxic medications,” said co-author Emilie Reas, PhD, assistant professor at the UC San Diego School of Medicine.

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