Hearing loss and loneliness : Heightened medical awareness needed
Loneliness is often cited as a serious health risk for older adults. It is even said to be a growing public health concern. Among the many reasons why people feel isolated and disconnected from their loved ones and communities, hearing loss tends to draw little attention from medical specialists. However, hearing loss can greatly contribute to loneliness in older adults. Unfortunately, many physicians do not make this connection. Yet, 1 in 3 ─ over 30% ─ of those aged 60 to 65, have some type of hearing loss, which is the third most common chronic condition after high blood pressure and arthritis.
Hearing loss might not be immediately suspected because in a quiet office even those with hearing challenges can handle one-on-one conversations relatively well. Doctors must become a lot more aware of that. Hearing issues definitely belong on the Loneliness and Isolation “rule out” list.
However, only 16% of physicians routinely screen for hearing loss. These very basic screens usually consist of the “finger rub” or “whisper test.” How many check for ear wax? How many inquire about communication issues when worries about being alone and unwanted are expressed?
Even if a hearing loss is suspected, a referral for professional hearing tests or an evaluation by an ENT doctor might not be offered. If nothing else, information on resources and technology should be shared with patients. Failure to act leads to social and professional disengagement. This results in personal set-backs that aggravate other health issues and cause further medical problems and increased costs.
How does hearing loss contribute to loneliness?
Hearing loss is an isolating, chronic communication disorder that affects every aspect of a person’s life. It interferes with verbal communication with loved ones and workplace colleagues. It undermines productivity, threatens social connections and takes a good chunk out of one’s quality of life.
The major issue is the inability to understand speech, especially in background noise, which many perceive as embarrassing. The desire to mix and mingle gradually erodes away and the slow slide into isolation and loneliness begins. It is hard to keep up with others, to join groups or to participate in activities when one does not hear well and understands even less. People choose to stay away.
Those with hearing loss often state that they feel on the “outside” of conversations or group activities even with people whom they have known for a long time. Besides, hearing loss is tiring. Listening effort turns social activities into exhausting chores.
In all fairness, many people do not report to their physician that they struggle trying to understanding conversations. They do not tell that family members or even people at work are becoming frustrated with their hearing issues. They too do not make the connection between hearing loss and their increasing social isolation and loneliness.
Let’s change that and do our part: Report hearing problems to the doctor. Ask to have the ears checked for wax and get a referral for professional hearing tests. Find out what might be wrong and what types of resources may help.
It’s time to move forward
Hearing loss can indeed contribute to loneliness in older adults. It does change lives. Therefore, learn about it and about hearing technology. Empower yourself and get help and get hope. It might not be an easy thing to do but it is a necessary step for staying connected and involved with life.
To learn about ears and hearing, please see my book on hearing loss: What Did You Say? An Unexpected Journey into the World of Hearing Loss, now in its second updated edition. Sharing my story and what I had to learn the hard way.