The Connection Between Hearing and Whole Person Health

Last update on Jan, 08, 2020

Whole person health is one of today’s hottest topics of discussion. But something significant is missing from the conversation. To find out what it is, let’s eavesdrop on Sally and Ted. Ted is 50 years old and just completed his annual physical exam. His wife, Sally, asks Ted about his exam on the way home from the doctor’s office…

Sally: “So, how did your physical go?”

Ted: “Okay, I guess. Overall I’m in good shape. I need to lose a few pounds, and my blood pressure is up a bit since last year. The doctor said I have to get back to regular exercise, eat smaller portions and cut down on processed food. Kind of the same stuff he told me the last time. Oh, and they scheduled me for a colonoscopy in two weeks.”

Sally: “Did the doctor say anything about your hearing?”

The impact of hearing health

A growing body of research points to the significant impact of hearing loss on many aspects of physical and mental health. And the longer hearing loss goes untreated, the more profound the impact. Facets of whole person health influenced by hearing loss include:

Social isolation and loneliness

Social isolation and loneliness are rapidly gaining attention as critically important social determinants of health (SDOH), which are the social and economic conditions that influence health risks and outcomes. A recent 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.   

Specifically, social isolation and loneliness have been identified as risk factors for a number of significant health conditions, including dementia, depression, heart attack and stroke. Many cases of social isolation and loneliness are rooted in hearing loss, which leads to communication difficulties and, ultimately avoidance of social situations, according to a National Council on Aging (NCOA) study.

Mental health

Depression costs health insurers, employers and U.S. society as a whole approximately $210 billion annually. Based on a review of 35 studies involving 147,148 individuals 60 years or older, researchers determined that hearing loss increases the likelihood of experiencing depression symptoms by 47%, compared to people with normal hearing.

One explanation for this link may be that people with hearing loss tend to be more socially isolated, which in turn is a risk factor for depression. In addition, hearing-impaired people often experience balance issues, which can lead to decreased physical activity, making them more vulnerable to depression. Another side effect of hearing loss is tinnitus (commonly known as “ringing in the ears”). Severe cases of tinnitus can disrupt a person’s life, causing or contributing to depression.

Cognitive function

The direct cost of caring for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia totaled an estimated $277 billion in 2018, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Hearing loss is one risk factor for dementia that has received a lot of attention in recent years. A Johns Hopkins study found that mild hearing loss doubled a person’s dementia risk, moderate hearing loss tripled the risk, and a severe hearing impairment increased the risk five-fold.

Another study concluded that older adults with severe hearing loss were 24% more likely than their normal-hearing peers to experience diminished cognitive abilities (encompassing concentration, memory and planning skills). The Alzheimer’s Association points to cognitive impairment, even in its mild form, as a risk factor for dementia.

Injury-causing falls

Injury-causing falls cost the U.S. health care system an estimated $50 billion in 2015, says a CDC fact sheet. In 2020 the financial toll for older adult falls may reach $67.7 billion, according to the NCOA. These staggering costs become plausible when you consider that one out of four Americans age 65-plus experiences a fatal or non-fatal fall each year. In fact, the NCOA reports that an older adult receives emergency room treatment for a fall every 11 seconds.

Research links hearing loss with an elevated risk of injury-causing falls. In their study of 2,017 individuals ages 40 to 69, Johns Hopkins researchers found that a 25-decibel hearing loss (classified as mild) was associated with a three-fold higher risk of falling, compared to someone with normal hearing. The chance of falling increases by 1.4 for every additional 10 decibels of hearing loss.

Complete the health conversation

In the “overheard” conversation at the beginning of this article, Sally asks her husband about his just-completed physical exam. Ted never mentions his hearing — which is obviously a concern to Sally. Unfortunately, many physicians don’t conduct a simple screening that might have detected hearing loss, triggering a referral to a hearing care professional for additional testing and treatment.

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Talk to an expert

As a nation, we need to make hearing health part of the conversation about whole person health. As a health insurer or employer, your organization can play an important role by offering a hearing benefit or hearing health care program. At Amplifon Hearing Health Care, we want to help you make it happen.

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