The Secondary Effects of Hearing Loss

by Wellness Editor – MH

Some of the most troublesome signs of getting older are hearing loss, depression and declining cognitive skills. Unfortunately, these are not uncommon problems; roughly 36 million Americans suffer from hearing loss to at least a certain degree. Likewise, nearly one in ten adults in the United States must contend with depression, and millions of seniors suffer from poor cognitive health. As bad as these conditions are, at least there is no connection between them – or is there? According to recent studies, adults with deteriorating hearing may also see problems with other aspects of their health.

Hearing Loss, Depression and Social Isolation

A significant number of older adults and senior citizens have hearing loss, but have yet to have it treated. The National Council on the Aging (NCOA) took a hard look at this issue, conducting a study on how untreated hearing loss impacted the mental wellbeing of adults over the age of 50. Upon surveying 2300 participants, the NCOA team concluded that failing to properly address hearing loss could have major consequences for older patients.            

The study found that those living with unaddressed hearing problems were more susceptible to anxiety, depression and paranoia. Furthermore, the subjects in this group acted more withdrawn, showing less inclination to partake in social events. When asked about experiencing recent periods of prolonged sadness or depression, adults with severe hearing loss were more likely to answer in the affirmative if they did not wear hearing aids (30 percent of adults fitting this criteria responded “yes,” as opposed to 22 percent for hearing aid users).

Aside from being more likely to exhibit downbeat emotions, the NCOA report found that untreated hearing loss may cause older adults to hold irrational views about other people. The researchers asked their subjects if they agreed with the statement that “other people get angry at me for no reason,” a tactic commonly used by psychologists when examining patients for paranoia. The subjects who were not using hearing aids were far more prone to answer “yes” to this question (23 percent) than those using them at the time of study (14 percent).

The NCOA isn’t the only group to trace seemingly unrelated medical issues to diminishing hearing. Australia’s Department of Human Services (DHS) produced its own study on the issue in 2008, and reached a similar set of conclusions. Some notable findings from this DHS report are shown below:

  • 60% of adults with hearing lost had at least some depression symptoms
  • 20% of people in the same group displayed at least three symptoms of depression
  • Among those with symptoms, 52% had increased irritability and frustration, 22% struggled with sleep or restlessness and 18% lost interest in activities they usually enjoyed.

The Impact on Cognitive Skills

Evidence has recently emerged that indicates hearing loss may also affect the brain’s cognitive skills, or its ability to think, reason, store and recall information and solve problems. A JohnsHopkinsUniversity study found that hearing loss is often followed by a steady decline in cognitive health. Publishing their work in the January 21st, 2013 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), the Johns Hopkins team observed nearly 2,000 volunteers over the age of 70. To better ensure the accuracy of the report’s findings, medical professionals administered standardized hearing tests to each participant. Additionally, the researchers employed the same set of brain and hearing tests throughout the duration of the study.

After collecting and analyzing their data, the research team found that the seniors with hearing loss suffered a quicker erosion of their cognitive skills than those with normal hearing. Based on participant’s test scores, the Johns Hopkins study estimated that an older adult with hearing loss would develop cognitive impairment in slightly under eight years. This was significantly shorter than the eleven-year estimate for adults with normal hearing capabilities.

The authors of the report cautioned that their efforts did not definitively prove a connection between hearing loss and cognitive impairment. Rather, the team concluded that there was enough evidence to warrant further study on the issue.  

Addressing the Issue

Hearing loss touches the lives of millions of Americans, yet many older adults and seniors do not get proper treatment for this ailment. According to the AmericanAcademy of Audiology, roughly sixty percent of older Americans with hearing loss do not use hearing aids. The reasons for this figure vary; some people may not be able to afford hearing aids, while others feel that they simply don’t need them. Still others avoid using this device for their perceived cosmetic effect, fearing that they will make them look “older.”

Such decisions are often detrimental to health of the patient. Along with improving a patient’s hearing capabilities, hearing aids might provide an indirect emotional boost as well. The NCOA study observed that older adults who began wearing hearing aids reported major improvements in many areas of their personal and social lives. This data was reinforced by the responses collected from family members. The findings from the NCOA report are shown in the proceeding table:

Improvement Area Improvement Reported by Hearing Aid User (%) Improvement Reported by User’s Family (%)
Relations at home 56 66
Feelings about self 50 60
Life overall 48 62
Relations with children, grandchildren 40 52
Mental health 36 39
Self-confidence 39 46
Sense of safety 34 37
Social life 34 41
Relations at work 26 43
Sex life 8 NA

 

It is highly advisable for older adults to consult with their doctor regarding possible hearing loss. Hearing aids not only help to regain lost hearing abilities, but may also have a positive effect on the patient’s demeanor and temperament.

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