Brains too busy trying to hear may let memory slip

Do you have issues with your hearing, such as difficulty engaging in conversations with family and friends? An inability to hear a television program without the volume turned way up?

I've asked these questions previously, but there are new facts on the table, including studies that link hearing loss and dementia.

Studies suggest "the worse the hearing loss the higher the risks of reduced cognition." This was well documented in "Shouting Won't Help" by Catherine Bouton. In a recent Sunday New York Times article, the author, who's been hearing impaired all her adult life, chronicles the sobering relationship between hearing loss and dementia.

She references the work of an otolaryngolist at Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Frank Lin, who describes the phenomenon as "cognitive load," which means the brain is "so preoccupied with translating sounds into words it seems to have no processing power left to search through the storerooms of memory for a response."

The worse the hearing loss, the worse the rate of cognitive decline.

Science-based explanations for this association are still evolving. Overloaded cognition is one explanation. The social isolation (a known risk for dementia) that comes with hearing loss also could be a factor. Or it may be related to a yet-to-be-understood relational degenerative pathology.

To date, the studies that look at how hearing aids positively affect possible cognitive loss are not definitive. There is some early indication hearing aids don't make the difference one would think they should. And that's a little depressing. It's hugely important to continue this research.

By 2050, one in 30 Americans will have dementia. According to experts, "if we could delay the onset by even one year, the prevalence of dementia drops by 15 percent and billions of health care dollars could be saved."

If there's any chance that improving my hearing reduces the risk of having dementia in the future, I'm on it. In the last few months I've worn my hearing aids constantly — sometimes forgetting to take them off in the shower (not a good thing) or when I go to bed (you'll remember the minute your head hits the pillow).

I openly talk about wearing aids in the hope of doing my part to diffuse stigma. I valiantly try to persuade people to embrace the possibilities. I promised my husband I would give him a one-hour back rub every week for the rest of his life if he would get a re-evaluation of his hearing aids.

Am I convincing enough to prompt you to act and get the evaluation? Bite the bullet and keep trying the aids? Find the perfect fit?

If it would help, there may be places to help fund hearing aids (

And now, if you'll excuse me, I have a back to rub.

Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor emeritus. Reach her at 541-261-2037 or

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