We have all seen the ads for hearing aids and assistive listening devices. We know how they’d help out and reduce the strain of trying to understand the mumbles. But while the ability to hear your loved ones or enjoy your favorite television shows is certainly the goal, it turns out there is more at stake than just your hearing health. New research shows that untreated hearing loss has a profound effect on mental state, affecting everything from temperament to perceived life satisfaction to cognition. And with the youngest baby boomers now entering their fifties, the increasing population of those with hearing loss is becoming a significant issue.
Those with hearing loss are likely to experience a myriad of mental and emotional issues; anger, depression, anxiety, loneliness, frustration, and decreased cognitive functioning are common among those with untreated hearing loss. Add in an average delay of seven to 10 years seeking treatment and you have a recipe for an unnecessarily poor quality of life for millions of people.
Hearing loss has, in recent years, been linked with depression. As a matter of fact, a recent study by the National Council on Aging studied more than 2300 people with hearing loss, and found that those with hearing loss were 50 percent more likely to experience depression. And it’s not just feeling down once in a while; many seniors with untreated hearing loss reported feelings of sadness and or depression that lasted two weeks or more. “This study debunks the myth that untreated hearing loss in older persons is a harmless condition,” said James Firman, president and CEO of The National Council on Aging (NCOA). Previous studies back this up; a 2014 study in the Journal of American Medicine Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery also linked hearing loss with an increased risk of depression, and found that women with hearing loss experienced higher rates of depression than men.
Cognitive decline is a significant problem that has been linked to untreated hearing loss in recent studies as well. Whether cognitive decline or even dementia are caused by hearing loss is not yet known; what is known is that a link has been established that needs further study. Researchers suspect that the higher risk for dementia and cognitive decline among those with untreated hearing loss could be caused by a number of factors. A recent study out of the University of Colorado suggests that one of these factors is brain reorganization, in which the hearing centers of the brain shrink and other parts of the brain previously devoted to other tasks to step in. The result is that brain functions such as short term memory or problem solving skills deteriorate.
Other studies, such as one done by Johns Hopkins in combination with the National Institute on Aging, suggest that for those with hearing loss the strain of decoding sounds may have something to do with dementia and cognitive decline. Simply put, straining to hear and understand sound becomes too much for the brain to handle, and again, the brain weakens as a result.
Among seniors, loneliness and social isolation are common problems which are unfortunately only exacerbated by hearing loss. Many seniors become frustrated with their efforts to hear and understand, especially in noisy environments. As a result they avoid activities, people and places they once enjoyed. The NCOA study found that people with untreated hearing loss are significantly less likely to participate in social activities than those who use hearing aids. While social isolation is a problem in and of itself, other research shows that it can be yet another factor in cognitive decline and dementia. Think of the brain like a muscle; in effect, it is a “use it or lose it” situation in which diminished hearing leads to less brain stimulation.
“Anger, frustration, depression and anxiety are all common among people who find themselves hard of hearing,” said David Myers, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Hope College in Michigan. Myers presented his own findings on the mental health implications of untreated hearing loss at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention, and said, “Getting people to use the latest in hearing aid technology can help them regain control of their life, and achieve emotional stability and even better cognitive functioning.”
The results of the studies highlight the importance of early hearing loss screening and treatment as a possible way to reduce the risk of the mental health issues and cognitive decline associated with hearing loss. In short, early screening and treatment can help improve quality of life, relationships, communication and social function, and help seniors re-engage in life.
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