Hearing Loss in Older Adults May Compromise Cognitive
Resources for Memory
Editor: Scientists have known for a long time that people with
hearing loss take longer to process a spoken message, and they believe
that part of the reason for this is that they are spending so much
energy just on the listening task. Now scientists at Brandeis University
believe that this extra effort may also impair an older person's ability
to remember what was said.
Waltham, Mass. -- In a new study, Brandeis University researchers
conclude that older adults with mild-to-moderate hearing loss may expend
so much cognitive energy on hearing accurately that their ability to
remember spoken language suffers as a result.
The study, published in the latest issue of Current Directions in
Psychological Science, showed that even when older adults could hear
words well enough to repeat them, their ability to memorize and remember
these words was poorer in comparison to other individuals of the same
age with good hearing.
"There are subtle effects of hearing loss on memory and
cognitive function in older adults," said lead author Arthur
Wingfield, Nancy Lurie Marks Professor of Neuroscience at the Volen
National Center for Complex Systems at Brandeis University. "The
effect of expending extra effort comprehending words means there are
fewer cognitive resources for higher level comprehension."
"This extra effort in the initial stages of speech perception
uses processing resources that would otherwise be available for
downstream operations, such as encoding the material in memory or
performing higher-level comprehension operations," explained
co-authors Patricia A. Tun and Sandra L. McCoy.
A group of older adults with good hearing and a group with
mild-to-moderate hearing loss participated in the study. Each
participant listened to a fifteen-word list and was asked to remember
only the last three words. All words were delivered at the same volume.
Both groups showed excellent recall for the final word, but the
hearing-loss group displayed poorer recall of the two words preceding
Because both groups could correctly report the final word, it was
reasoned that the hearing-loss group's failure to remember the other two
words was not a result of their inability to hear/correctly identify
them. The authors interpret this as a demonstration of the effortfulness
principle-- the increased effort required detracted from the cognitive
processes of memorizing these words.
"This study is a wake-up call to anyone who works with older
people, including health care professionals, to be especially sensitive
to how hearing loss can affect cognitive function," said Dr.
He suggested that individuals who interact with older people with
some hearing loss could modify how they speak by speaking clearly and
pausing after clauses, or chunks of meaning, not necessarily slowing
down speech dramatically.
Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the
American Psychological Society, presents the latest advances in theory
and research in psychology. This important and timely journal contains
concise reviews spanning all of scientific psychology and its
The American Psychological Society represents psychologists
advocating science-based research in the public's interest.
Over the last 15 years Dr. Wingfield and Dr. Tun have carried out
extensive programs of research, funded by National Institute on Aging,
studying effects of aging on speech processing and memory for spoken
language. More recently they have focused on effects of mild to moderate
hearing loss, and how sensory changes interact with comprehension and
memory for speech in younger and older adults.