Hearing problems or cognitive issues?

Q: Recently my mother started forgetting things we’ve talked about or looks blankly as though she doesn’t understand what we’re saying. I have a feeling it’s a problem with her hearing, not her cognition. What do you recommend?Mother and daughter

 A: Because hearing and cognition are closely related, it’s always advisable to assess both; it is not unusual for patients to undergo a cognitive assessment only to find out that they have a hearing problem, so we want to make sure that we address the hearing problem wherever possible.

Hearing loss and cognitive impairment can have many similar symptoms, and we often see that once a client starts wearing a hearing aid regularly, what was once thought to be a problem with memory or other aspects of cognition, improves dramatically.

The good news is that comfortable, high tech hearing aids have come a long way, and automation of features such as volume adjustment have made them easier to use.

Keep in mind that by age 65, a quarter of us will have clinically significant hearing loss. By age 75, half of us will be affected.

We’ll find it increasingly difficult to engage in conversations in a noisy environment and follow fast speakers. Because our aging brains are slower to process information, we’ll need more effortful listening to comprehend information.

Of course, most of us will deny we have this problem, which is part of the problem! If we let this go on too long, we can look like we have a cognitive impairment when we really don’t. Or maybe we develop an age-related cognitive disorder and the hearing difficulty exacerbates it.

I would encourage your mother to have a hearing assessment. If she needs a hearing aid, you should encourage her to get over the stigma and embrace the hearing aid, for her family and friends as well as herself. Other useful tips would be for your mother to ask others to use helpful communication strategies like speaking slowly and clearly, ensuring she can see their face for lip reading, and seeking out quieter spaces to socialize.

Marilyn Reed
Professional Practice Leader for Audiology at Baycrest