According to the World Health Organization, 2 billion people in the world will be 60 years old or older by 2050. As the number of older adults increases, so do the health conditions affecting this population, including hearing loss and its documented connection to emotional health, depression and social isolation.
Recently, a cross-sectional study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience investigated the association between untreated hearing loss, social and emotional loneliness, social isolation, social support and psychological discomfort, including depression, anxiety and stress in older adults.
To perform the study, researchers talked to 202 volunteers between 40 to 89 years old. Of these, 115 were females and 87 were males. They all completed a hearing assessment, social interaction and support questionnaire and a social and emotional loneliness questionnaire.
The researchers found that untreated hearing loss significantly increased the odds of being emotionally lonely. The study reported that depression significantly contributes to social and emotional loneliness, satisfaction with social support and social loneliness. Given the higher prevalence of loneliness and psychological discomfort and their associations with untreated hearing loss, hearing-impaired older adults are at significant risk of developing loneliness and psychological discomfort. The researchers recommended hearing health professionals should be aware of the psychosocial burden that may accompany hearing loss so they could provide appropriate advice and support.
What causes those with hearing loss to become socially isolated and depressed?
Untreated hearing loss makes it difficult for anyone, especially older adults, to enjoy interactions with loved ones and friends. Socializing, in noisy environments or in places where background noise can interfere with hearing, can make it especially difficult for individuals to enjoy getting out. The result is that these individuals often find it easier to just stay home than to try to continue attending social gatherings, like church or clubs.
Often, individuals with untreated hearing loss also have strained relationships and a difficult time communicating at work or performing at their best.
How common is depression connected to hearing loss?
To estimate the prevalence of and risk factors for depression among adults over age 18 with hearing loss, a 2005-2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) found that 11.4% of U.S. adults with self-reported hearing loss had moderate to severe depression, and an additional 19.1% had mild depressive symptoms, particularly among older women.
Long term, untreated hearing loss, social isolation, loneliness and depression can impact health and quality of life in many ways. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) highlights the health consequences of social isolation and loneliness as follows:
- Social isolation significantly increases a person’s risk of premature death from all causes.
- Poor social relationships (characterized by social isolation or loneliness) are associated with a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke.
- Loneliness is associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.
- Loneliness among heart failure patients is associated with a nearly 4 times increased risk of death, 68% increased risk of hospitalization, and 57% increased risk of emergency department visits.
- Social isolation is associated with about a 50% percent increased risk of dementia.
- Further complications arise when people with hearing loss avoid medical appointments due to worries of misunderstanding medical history questions, diagnoses, or treatment and intervention explanations.
What’s the answer to this complex problem?
Hearing loss and emotional health are both very complex health issues that may require specialized care. But in general, for those with hearing loss, over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription hearing aids and assistive hearing technology can greatly improve an individual’s ability to hear, which enhances the ability to connect with others and maintain healthy relationships.
The Food and Drug Administration believed it was so important to address hearing loss and its impact that it recently approved OTC hearing aids, which now can be purchased in retail stores and online at a more affordable price. Granted, these hearing aids do not have the sophisticated features available in many prescription devices, but the goal is to make this technology more accessible to all.
Research also has shown that patient satisfaction is highest with premium prescription hearing aids, which may have advanced features such as background noise reduction and directional microphones. These can help the wearer communicate better and continue enjoying social activities.
OTCs are recommended for individuals with mild-to-moderate hearing loss and prescription hearing aids are recommended especially for those under 18 and those with severe hearing loss. Professional audiology associations recommend all individuals have a comprehensive hearing evaluation before purchasing any type of hearing device.
If you suspect you have hearing loss, don’t stop enjoying the people and activities you love. Schedule an appointment with a doctoral-level audiologist who can determine whether you have a hearing loss and can make recommendations based on your lifestyle, budget and goals.