Home health care workers across Minnesota will receive intensive training starting this month on how to detect and treat hearing loss among senior citizens living at home, state officials announced today.

Acting on new research that highlights the dangers of untreated hearing loss, the state Commission of Deaf, Deafblind and Hard of Hearing Minnesotans is rolling out training in nine areas of the state with an unusually dense concentration of senior citizens.

Dozens of home care workers, including nurses and personal care attendants, will receive the new training by the middle of 2018, officials said. The goal is to get hearing aids, assistive technology and specialized care to hundreds of Minnesotans over age 55 who are suffering from hearing loss but are not receiving adequate treatment.

Recent research at Johns Hopkins University has found that nearly two-thirds of adults over age 70 have some form of hearing loss. However, the average adult waits 15 years to take action to address it.

Left untreated, hearing loss can lead to depression and social isolation and can accelerate cognitive decline, research has shown.

"This is about awakening individuals and health care providers to the huge, huge problem of hearing loss among senior citizens," said John Wodele, 70, a board member of the state commission and retired marketing executive. "It's also about getting people help before they become frustrated and decline."

The correlation between age-related hearing loss and cognitive decline among seniors is significant. In a major 2013 study, researchers at Johns Hopkins examined the brain activity of nearly 2,000 adults between the ages of 75 and 84. The researchers found that over six years, the cognitive abilities of those with hearing loss declined 30 to 40 percent faster than in people with normal hearing.

Peggy Nelson, professor of speech-language-hearing sciences at the University of Minnesota, said hearing loss can accelerate cognitive decline by making people withdraw from conversations and productive activities. In addition, if the brain is straining to decipher sounds, it's distracted from other processes like memory and thinking, she said.

Even so, researchers have found that only about 15 percent of those who need a hearing aid actually use one, leaving many of the consequences untreated.

"This is a public health issue," Nelson said. "We need to develop strategies to reach seniors in their homes and help them live fuller and more engaged lives."

The training initiative marks the first time that Minnesota's commission for the deaf has done targeted outreach to seniors. The program includes an online training module designed to help home care workers detect the warning signs of hearing loss, as well as develop treatment strategies to help seniors communicate better and avoid becoming socially withdrawn. In some cases, people will receive help getting hearing aids and other assistive devices, while others may simply need a reorganized living environment, with fewer distracting sounds, officials said.

The project will eventually be expanded to include workers in nursing homes and other senior care facilities.