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“Can You Repeat the Question?” Was Robert Mueller Exhibiting Age-Related Cognitive Decline—or Hearing Loss?

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On 48 occasions during his recent testimony regarding Russian election interference, former special counsel Robert Mueller—seeming “confused,” “uncertain,” and “forgetful”—asked to have questions repeated. Was Mueller, who turns 75 this week, exhibiting, as so many pundits surmised,cognitive agingor perhaps even early signs of dementia?

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Win McNamee/Getty Images 

The chatter among those of us with hearing loss suggested a much simpler explanation: Robert Mueller is likely one of us. Might his struggle to hear suggest normal age-related hearing loss, exacerbated by his Vietnam combat? Among Americans 75 and older, half “have difficulty hearing,” reports the National Institute on Deafness and Other Hearing Disorders. For war veterans of Mueller’s age, some hearing loss is to be expected.

 

In response, we empathized. Struggling to hear, especially in important social situations, is stressful and tiring. It drains cognitive energy—energy that is then unavailable for quick processing and responding. Moreover, the challenge is compounded in a cavernous room with distant ceiling speakers that produce a verbal fog as sounds bounce off hard walls. Add to that fast-talking (time-constrained) questioners, some of whom were looking down at their script while speaking, impeding natural lip reading. Those of us with hearing loss dread, and avoid, such situations.

 

There is, admittedly, accumulating evidence (here and here) that hearing loss is associated with accelerated cognitive decline in later life. Compared with people with good hearing, those with hearing loss show declines in memory, attention, and learning about three years earlier—though less if they get hearing aids. But Robert Mueller’s slowness in understanding and processing questions seems explainable not only by his four dozen requests for having questions re-voiced, but likely also by his not completely hearing or perhaps mishearing other questions.

 

And it was all so easily avoidable in one of three ways—each of which I have experienced as a god-send:

  1. A table speaker 20 inches from his ears could have given him vastly clearer sound than what reached his ears after reverberating around the spacious room.
  2. Real-time captioning on a table screen, like the TV captioning we use at home, could have made the spoken words instantly clear.
  3. A room hearing loop could have magnetically transmitted the voice from each microphone directly to the inexpensive telecoil sensor that comes with most modern hearing aids. Other Capitol buildings—including the U.S. House and Senate main chambers and the U.S. Supreme Court chamber—now have hearing loops. Voila! With the mere push of a button (with no need to obtain extra equipment), we can hear deliciously clear sound. (See here, here, and here for more hearing loop information. Full disclosure: The first site is my own informational website, and the last describes our collective advocacy to bring this technology to all of the United States.)

 

Here ye! Hear ye! Let Robert Mueller’s struggling to hear remind our culture that hearing loss—the great invisible disability—is commonplace and, thanks to population aging and a life history of toxic noise, growing. And let us resolve to create a more hearing-friendly environment, from quieter restaurants to hearing-looped auditoriums, worship places, and airports.

 

(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com.)

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About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org).