Consequences of Untreated Hearing Loss: Loneliness and Depression
Take a moment and think about your favorite sounds. Maybe you love hearing your grandchildren’s laughter when they come to visit and being part of the banter at your book club meetings. Or maybe it’s the lecture series or concerts you attend.
Now, imagine the frustration of hearing just bits and pieces, of missing a key comment or punch line in conversations.
For centuries, hearing loss has been viewed as a troublesome, but not particularly troubling condition by the general public. But new research linking hearing loss to an increased risk for cognitive declines and even dementia should move to address this issue straight to the top of our to-do list.
Hearing loss is a fact of life for two-thirds of people over 70 years of age. And for those over 85, that number jumps to 80 percent. Another stark statistic is that people wait an average of seven years after diagnosis to seek treatment.
While hearing loss is often viewed as a natural part of aging, that perspective doesn’t take into account the consequences of untreated hearing loss. Luckily, recent research is now bringing to light how hearing loss is connected to loneliness and depression and identifying solutions to help reverse the damage from these impacts.
According to a study published in JAMA Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery, Johns Hopkins looked at nearly 2,000 adults with an average age of 77, charting cognitive abilities that included memory and planning skills and concentration.
At the end of six years, those who began the study with hearing loss that was severe enough to make conversation difficult were 24 percent more likely than those with normal hearing to have cognitive declines. According to the research team, hearing loss seemed to speed up age-related cognitive decline, and the more severe the loss, the greater the risk that this process would occur.
Ultimately, the study suggested that untreated hearing loss on its own can increase the risk of depression by 40 percent and dementia by 50 percent.
During years where hearing loss is left untreated, our brain is overloaded as it struggles to decide what is being said, says Jane Gibson, R.N., Executive Director of Asbury community Springhill Senior Living. As a result, it may not be able to do some of the other work it is supposed to be doing.
Just as serious is the social isolation that often results, she points out. Those with hearing loss find it difficult to engage in conversations and can come away feeling frustrated or even embarrassed if they misread or missed a social cue. Over time, they may choose to avoid social situations altogether. This, in turn, can lead to depression.
When you’re unable to hear people speaking or take part in activities you once enjoyed, you’re left feeling isolated and lonely. This loneliness can lead to increased stress levels, elevated blood pressure and even a weakened immune system. This loneliness can quickly spiral out of control and lead to symptoms of depression, including fatigue and sleep problems, unhealthy weight changes, loss of interest in hobbies you used to love and irritability.
Many older adults don’t get checked for hearing loss because they either don’t realize they’re slowly losing their hearing, fear being stigmatized or don’t have the money to pay for treatment. And those who leverage hearing aids oftentimes run into problems. Like any other device, hearing aids can have technical problems that can cause you to hear unwanted sounds if not adjusted properly.
But in a study conducted by Johns Hopkins’ Cochlear Center for Hearing and Public Health, hearing aids actually helped reduce dementia symptoms and allowed the participants to connect with loved ones and activities in ways they hadn’t been able to do since losing their hearing.
Since traditional hearing aids can be expensive and challenging to adjust, other solutions may be available to improve hearing loss. For example, low-cost sound amplification products can be found at local drugstores, and sound technology giants like Bose are making moves to bring new innovation to the hearing aid market.
Solutions like these have the potential to rejuvenate your life and make it possible to maintain your active, social lifestyle without falling victim to loneliness and depression.
If you suspect someone you love has hearing loss but has not sought treatment or a hearing test, approach them with honesty and compassion, says Gibson: “This is a very emotional issue. Tell them that you’re noticing the television turned up loud or provide a few specific examples of when they misunderstood or missed what you were saying.”
Urge them to make an appointment with their primary care physician for a check-up and a referral to an audiologist. “It may not be what you think,” she notes. “It could be as simple as wax build-up in the ear.” Be sure to meet with an approved audiologist who can evaluate you for the most appropriate hearing aids for your particular need rather than someone who sells amplified receivers, she adds.
Likewise, Gibson says, if you know someone who is showing cognitive declines, be sure they have had their hearing checked.
The most important thing is to open a conversation and stick with it. “Research has found that someone who has mild hearing loss may be at two times the risk for developing dementia,” Gibson says. “If you have moderate, three times and severe, five times the risk. So that’s pretty high.”
If your loved one is struggling with hearing loss, there are a few things you can do to help:
Hearing loss doesn’t have to define you or make you change the way you live your life. In fact, our mission at Asbury is to help you continue living the active lifestyle you’re used to, while enjoying the peace of mind that comes with having a secure plan for your future