Hearing Loss and Social Isolation, Loneliness

Last update on Jan, 30, 2020

It’s a conversation that occurs every day across the country: family members discussing a parent or other loved one who has mysteriously “disappeared” from special events and other social occasions. What’s behind the growing trend toward social isolation and loneliness? For clues, let’s listen in on the conversation between a brother and sister…

Jared: “What’s going on with Mom? I heard she’s not going to Freddy’s birthday party. Is she sick?”

Heather: “I don’t think so. She seemed okay when I talked to her a couple days ago. But I’ve noticed that she’s been staying at home by herself a lot lately.”

Jared: “Yeah, you’re right. Did you know she cancelled my lunch date with her last week? She said she had a bad night and was feeling tired.”

Heather: “That’s weird — Mom has always loved going to Murphy’s for lunch!”

Hearing loss is a risk factor for social withdrawal

When people withdraw from social situations, family members and friends are often left wondering why. Is the person ill? Or avoiding someone due to a personal conflict? But it could be something else — something that nobody has considered. Maybe it’s the person’s hearing loss, a condition that affects approximately 36 million Americans.

One of the most perplexing things about hearing loss is how problematic it becomes in noisy situations and settings, such as large family gatherings and busy restaurants. Under these circumstances, background noise can make it extremely difficult or impossible for a person with hearing loss to understand normal conversation.

Consequently, people with hearing difficulties often find it easier and less stressful to avoid social situations. A National Council on Aging (NCOA) survey of 2,300 adults age 50 and older with hearing loss found that people with untreated hearing loss were less likely to participate in organized social activities compared to those who wore hearing aids. Why is this so concerning?

Health consequences of untreated hearing loss

Social isolation isn’t just about missing out on special occasions with family and friends. In fact, social isolation and, more specifically, loneliness have been implicated as significant social determinants of health (SDOH), the social and economic conditions that influence health risks and outcomes.

Several studies have found that social isolation and loneliness are risk factors for a number of costly, life-altering health conditions, including dementia, depression, heart attack and stroke. A study of 20,000 people by health insurer Cigna concluded that loneliness was associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes daily, and it posed a greater health risk than obesity.

The previously discussed NCOA survey and various other studies have indicated a pathway from hearing loss to social isolation to other health conditions.

For example, Frank Lin, MD, and his Johns Hopkins University colleagues speculated that hearing loss leads to social isolation, “a known risk factor for dementia and other cognitive disorders,” stated a Johns Hopkins article. Researchers from Johns Hopkins and National Institute on Aging concluded that individuals with mild, moderate and severe hearing loss had a twofold, threefold and fivefold risk, respectively, of developing dementia over time, compared to their peers with normal hearing.

Another study conducted by Ear Science Institute Australia and the University of Western Australia pointed to social isolation as a factor in its conclusion that people with hearing loss are 47% more likely than individuals without hearing loss to experience symptoms of depression.

“We know that older adults with hearing loss often withdraw from social occasions, like family events, because they have trouble understanding others in noisy situations, which can lead to emotional and social loneliness,” said lead study author Blake Lawrence. “We also know that older adults with hearing loss are more likely to experience mild cognitive decline and difficulty completing daily activities, which can have an additional negative impact on their quality of life and increase the risk of developing depression.”

Complete the health conversation

In the “overheard” conversation at the beginning of this article, a brother and sister struggle to understand why their mom has withdrawn from social activities that once brought her so much pleasure. They don’t consider the possibility of hearing loss. They also may not understand the potentially devastating repercussions of social isolation and loneliness on their mother’s health.

For health insurers and employers, this scenario — and countless others like it — should set off alarm bells. Besides the negative impact on quality of life, the comorbidities of social isolation and loneliness come with an enormous price tag. For example, depression costs health insurers, employers and U.S. society as a whole approximately $210 billion annually, and the direct cost of caring for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia totaled an estimated $277 billion in 2018.

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Ready to offer a hearing benefit?

Hearing loss may be a leading contributor to social isolation and loneliness, but it’s also one of the most treatable risk factors. Your organization can help complete the conversation by offering a hearing benefit or hearing health care program. For information and guidance, contact Amplifon Hearing Health Care.

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