untreated hearing loss linked to isolation and loneliness in seniors


In September 2019, Rochelle Sharpe reported on the impact hearing loss has on older people in NPR, especially in relation to isolation and loneliness.

She wrote:

When Anne Madison could no longer hear her microwave beep, she assumed that her appliance needed repair. In fact, the machine worked well, but her confusion foreshadowed a frustrating struggle: a long and lonely battle with hearing loss.

Madison didn't bother going to a doctor after the microwave incident. She knew that hearing aids were so expensive that she could never afford them. So she decided to deal with the hassles of hearing impairment on her own and "just kind of pulled up my socks."

Before long, her world began to shrivel. She stopped going to church, since she could no longer hear the sermons. She abandoned the lectures that she used to frequent, as well as the political rallies that she had always loved. Communicating with her adult sons became an ordeal, filled with endless requests that they repeat themselves, or speak louder.

And when she moved to a Baltimore housing development in 2013, she got a reputation for being standoffish, with neighbors incorrectly assuming that she was ignoring them when she had no idea they even had spoken to her.

"You sit in your apartment and turn up your TV louder and louder," says Madison, 68, describing hearing loss as having someone suddenly drop a bell over you. "You're cut off. It's a horrible way to be."

There may be no easy fix for the loneliness epidemic plaguing the nation, but helping people cope with hearing loss could be one key to tackling this complex problem. Hearing loss affects 1 of every 5 people and is strongly linked to loneliness: Every decibel drop in perception in people under 70 increases the odds of becoming severely lonely by 7%, one Dutch study showed.

As hearing declines, loneliness can intensify — and set off a cascade of detrimental health effects. Now considered as hazardous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, loneliness vastly raises the risks of depression, dementia and early death.

Yet the vast majority of people who suffer from hearing loss don't know they have a problem — or don't want to know. The changes happen gradually, and often earlier than expected.

Even when they discover their problems, most don't use hearing devices, likely because of costs, stigma and potential technical difficulties.

For decades, age-related hearing loss was considered medically harmless. Medicare still treats hearing loss as a normal part of aging, not a medical problem, and doesn't pay for hearing aids or even routine hearing tests.

But about a decade ago, scientists began focusing more on the potential harms of hearing loss as well as loneliness. Before long, it became clear that both conditions had enormous medical consequences.

Loneliness is associated with high blood pressure, elevated stress hormones and weakened immune systems, research shows. These feelings of isolation also raise the risk of dementia by 40% and the odds of early death by 26%, according to recent studies.

Untreated hearing loss, meanwhile, increases the risk of dementia by 50%, depression by 40% and falls by 30% over a 10-year period, a study published last year in JAMA Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery concluded.

Researchers are especially interested in untangling the links between loneliness, hearing loss and dementia. Last year, Johns Hopkins University scientists launched the first major randomized controlled trial to determine whether hearing treatment could actually prevent – or slow — cognitive decline, a finding that could revolutionize dementia care. If these scientists show that hearing loss helps cause dementia, they say that hearing treatment could prevent up to 9% of the more than 47 million dementia cases in the world.

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