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.”