Side Effects of Hearing Loss (Part 1): Hearing and Mental Health

At its core, hearing loss is an issue with how your body processes and perceives sound. 

The side effects of this, however, have been strongly linked to negative side effects in both physical and mental wellbeing. 

While hearing loss may not cause any of the effects directly, there is significant research that shows that hearing loss may be a large driver of the problem, if not making it worse. 

This two-part series will explore the negative effects hearing loss has on your mental and physical well-being as well as ways to negate those effects.

Hearing Loss and Mental Functioning

Like a muscle, using the brain regularly keeps it healthy. 

With hearing loss, though, it is like part of your muscle stops being used (the muscle in this case being your brain).

According to one study that looked at the results of previous research on hearing loss, when not treated, presbycusis or “age-related hearing loss was significantly associated with decline in all main cognitive domains and with increased risk for cognitive impairment and incident dementia.”

Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease

This is important enough that it bears emphasis:

Hearing loss itself does not cause dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Current research does show that it is associated with accelerating the negative effects of the disease and is linked to increased risk. 

One study concluded that “mild hearing loss doubled dementia risk. Moderate loss tripled risk, and people with severe hearing impairment were five times more likely to develop dementia.”

The importance of understanding this link is because in cases where hearing loss is not reversible, it is treatable.

In fact, hearing loss has been “identified as one of the top potentially modifiable risk factors for dementia” by the Lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention, Intervention, and Care, meaning that reducing the effects of hearing loss may improve long-term outcomes with slowing the progression of dementia.

Cognitive Decline

“People with hearing loss are more likely to develop cognitive problems than people who do not have hearing loss,” explains Temma Ehrenfeld, though there are still a lot of unknowns with research being done to account for its “many unanswered questions”.

In one study there was a link found between hearing loss and reduced brain activity. Using an MRI they measured how much neural activity happened while trying to understand sentences spoken to them. 

Another evaluation of members of a continuing care retirement community noticed that “hearing impairment was associated with steeper decline” in age-related cognitive decline.

“Brain scans show us that hearing loss may contribute to a faster rate of atrophy in the brain,” says Doctor Frank Lin, director of Johns Hopkins' Cochlear Center for Hearing and Public Health. 

A healthy brain is an active brain—staying physically active, engaging in fulfilling activities like volunteering, and learning new skills are all ways to stave off cognitive decline.

Emotional Effects of Hearing Loss

Another major area of concern with hearing loss is its link to emotional wellbeing. 

These are wide-ranging and while once again, hearing loss may not be the direct cause, it will make the effects worse.

Isolation and Loneliness

Doctor Lin put this link in stark terms: “hearing loss is really linked with loneliness."

Those with hearing loss may feel left out of the conversation, missing one too many punchlines, or even stop seeking out talking to people due to the difficulty in trying to communicate.

Anne Madison, 68 told NPR that hearing loss was like having someone suddenly drop a bell over you. "You're cut off. It's a horrible way to be."

For social creatures like humans, many are familiar with Madison’s plight. It’s not just the feelings of isolation but there are physical effects of loneliness as well. According to research, Loneliness is associated with everything from high blood pressure and elevated stress hormones to weakened immune systems. 

When it comes to the link between loneliness and hearing loss, one study of current research reported that “hearing loss is associated with loneliness and social isolation have important implications for the cognitive and psychosocial health of older adults.”

Depression and Anxiety

The social isolation and loneliness caused by hearing loss in the long term have been linked to depression and anxiety. 

One study found that hearing loss is “significantly associated with depression, particularly in women.”

The American Academy of Audiology writes that hearing loss may “lead to depression if you avoid simple duties, avoiding or withdrawing from social situations, [or] feel alone even with family and friends”

Managing hearing loss is important for maintaining social ties and feeling connected to others. If you find you’re struggling to take part in conversations or embarrassed by asking people to keep repeating themselves, perhaps it’s time to see how your hearing is faring these days with our free test.

Conclusion

There is a lot of bad news in this post. 

These negative effects of hearing loss on your mental health only underscore the importance of taking care of your sense of hearing. 

The good news, according to Doctor Frank Lin is that “hearing treatment can make a difference,” and that starts with scheduling an appointment with an audiologist today.

Stay tuned next week as we explore the link between hearing loss and your physical well-being.

 

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