Link Between Hearing Loss and Mental Health During COVID-19

Last update on Aug, 18, 2020

News reports chronicling coronavirus in the U.S. deliver a gut punch every day. But as alarming and tragic as the statistics are (15.4 million confirmed cases and more than 291,000 deaths as of early December 2020)1, they tell only part of the COVID-19 story.

Specifically, health care professionals and researchers are just beginning to understand the mental health impacts, including depression, loneliness and social isolation — and not just as consequences of the disease itself, but also stemming from physical distancing, self-quarantining and stay-at-home orders. Individuals with hearing loss may be especially at risk.

Of course, mental health issues are not a recent phenomenon. Clinical depression, one of America’s most common mental health conditions, affected more than 17 million adults before the pandemic, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Loneliness and social isolation may be more difficult to quantify, but their prevalence in U.S. society is undeniable.

The consequences of mental health conditions are significant and alarming. For example, the total economic burden of depression was estimated to be at least $210 billion annually prior to the pandemic, and loneliness was associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes daily.

Pandemic intensifies mental health issues

Mounting evidence points to an intensification of mental health issues with COVID-19. Compounding the panic, anxiety, fear, worry and anger spawned by the virus itself are the mental health ramifications of physical distancing, self-quarantining, stay-at-home orders and rising unemployment.
More than 42% of Americans reported an overall decline in mental health since the start of the global crisis, according to a Healthcare Finance article, citing research done by Revel Health. The same article also summarized the findings of a nationwide survey assessing the effects of COVID-19; it revealed that 90% of adults reported emotional distress related to the pandemic.

Loneliness and social isolation have received a lot of attention in recent years — and even more so with the pandemic.
A Time magazine special report entitled, “COVID-19 Is Making America's Loneliness Epidemic Even Worse,” states: “Since lockdowns and stay-at-home orders were instated, roughly a third of American adults report feeling lonelier than usual, according to an April survey by social-advice company SocialPro. Another survey, also in April, for financial research group ValuePenguin, put the number even higher, at 47%.”

In an International Journal of Social Psychiatry article, Dr. Debanjan Banerjee discussed the correlation between COVID-19 and loneliness. “Billions of people are quarantined in their own homes as nations have locked down to implement social distancing as a measure to contain the spread of infection. Those affected and suspicious cases are isolated. This social isolation leads to chronic loneliness and boredom, which if long enough, can have detrimental effects on physical and mental well-being.”

Hearing loss magnifies mental health issues

The pandemic is exacerbating mental health conditions already connected to hearing loss. Numerous studies have shown that hearing loss increases the risk for moderate to severe depression, and it reduces participation in organized social activities. These impacts are more pronounced among older adults.

“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 Blake Lawrence, lead study author of a study conducted by Ear Science Institute Australia and the University of Western Australia.

COVID-19 also has created new challenges that may make individuals with hearing loss feel even more depressed, lonely and socially isolated.

One of the most notable factors is the growing use of face masks to help reduce spread of the virus. The problem is, people with hearing loss often rely on lip reading to aid their comprehension of speech. However, this strategy is compromised with the growing use of face masks that cover the mouth.

In addition, many older adults have gone into mandated or self-imposed lockdown, prompted by their susceptibility to serious COVID-19 complications. Largely cut off from outside life, they’re at a greater risk for loneliness. In fact, a study conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago found that the pandemic made about one-third of adults age 70 and older feel lonelier than usual. Hearing loss, a risk factor for loneliness, can only magnify this impact.

Good hearing may reduce health risks

An estimated 37.5 million American adults experience hearing loss, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). This includes approximately 25% of people between the ages of 65 and 74 and nearly half of those over 75, age groups already prone to depression, loneliness and social isolation — and now disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

The ability to hear well may give these individuals an advantage in coping with pandemic-related challenges, thus reducing the risk of serious and costly mental health conditions. Now, more than ever, a hearing benefit is a smart strategy for health insurers, particularly Medicare Advantage plans. Contact Amplifon Hearing Health Care for more information or assistance with designing and implementing a plan.

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Hearing loss is one of the country’s most common health conditions. It’s also one of the most treatable. Contact Amplifon today for more information about how your members or employees can benefit from a hearing health care program.

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