Aging is so often accompanied by hearing loss, called presybcusis, that some consider it a normal part of aging. Certainly loss of hearing affects communication in daily interactions. Together with vision loss, severe sensory impairments can cause older persons to experience what appears to be dementia-like behaviors. Fortunately, these behaviors are reversible if the sensory impairments are addressed and environments can be made more accommodating.
In recent years, however, it has become clear that impaired hearing may affect more than just the ability to understand the words or sentences spoken by another person. Instead, hearing loss can affect higher level cognitive and linguistic processes. In fact, it appears that the brain must devote considerable effort and resources to process incoming auditory stimuli when there is a hearing impairment (McCoy et al., 2005). As a result, fewer resources are available for the additional cognitive operations needed to process information (working memory) or to place it in long term memory. Thus, some changes in cognitive functioning seen in normally aging adults may actually be traced to this loss of resources due of the extra effort needed to process speech (Wingfield, Tun, & McCoy, 2005).
In a sense, this suggests that hearing loss is more of a culprit than was previously believed in the normal age-related changes in cognition experienced by older adults. Even when a person with a hearing loss can understand incoming speech, other cognitive operations may suffer because extra resources had to be allocated to address the degraded auditory signal coming through the aging hearing system (Schneider, Daneman, & Murphy, 2005).
Health care providers must be sensitive to the potential impact of hearing loss on a client’s cognitive and linguistic performance, even when the client is apparently able to “hear” the stimulus adequately. From a practical perspective, these findings provide additional support for the importance of providing the elderly with maximum support for hearing; reducing other distracters; enhancing multisensory input; and ensuring that hearing aids and assistive listening systems are used.
by Barbara B. Shadden, PhD, Office for Studies on Aging, UA Fayetteville
- McCoy, S. L., Tun, P. A., Cox, L. C., Colangelo, M., Stewart, R. A., & Wingfield, A. (2005). Hearing loss and perceptual effort: Downstream effects on older adults’ memory for speech. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 58A, 22-33.
- Schneider, B., Daneman, M., & Murphy, D. (2005, June). Speech comprehension difficulties in older adults: Cognitive slowing or age-related changes in hearing? Psychology and Aging, 20(2), 261-271.
- Wingfield, A., Tun, P.A., & McCoy, S.L. (2005). Hearing loss in older adulthood: What it is and how it interacts with cognitive performance. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14, 144-148.