Once, we may have thought that hearing loss was an unfortunate but relatively benign part of getting older. However, in recent decades, numerous studies have pointed to more serious consequences of untreated hearing loss.
We know there is a strong connection between hearing loss and an elevated risk of loneliness and depression, and an increased risk of earlier onset of cognitive decline and dementia, which increases with the profundity of the hearing loss up to fivefold compared to those with normal hearing. Hearing loss also decreases our ability to balance, which in turn increases our risk of falling down, and faster-than-normal rates of hearing loss can even be an early indicator of a potentially life-threatening cardiovascular issue.
A recent Japanese study has concluded that those who self-report hearing loss are also more likely to report more limited outdoor activity, memory loss, and psychological distress than those with normal hearing.
Hearing Loss Is Known to Cause Additional Problems
This is in keeping with current trends in our understanding of hearing loss. As hearing loss becomes problematic, it also tends to tire us out. The extra mental energy required from straining to listen and trying to assemble meaningful sentences from the bits and pieces of auditory information coming in through our ears is exhausting, as anyone with hearing loss will tell you! As it becomes more exhausting and less pleasurable to participate in activities we once enjoyed, we retreat from them. And the cognitive load required just to understand speech also leaves us with less mental resources for committing what we hear to memory.
Over time, as these difficulties lead us to less and more difficult social engagement, our mental health can suffer as we feel more lonely and less able to keep up. While some people mistake these problems as symptoms of aging, they are more properly attributed to hearing loss, and can be mitigated with treatments such as hearing aids.
Published in the journal Geriatrics Gerontology International, the official title of the study is “Associations Between Self-Reported Hearing Loss and Outdoor Activity Limitations, Psychological Distress and Self-Reported Memory Loss Among Older People: Analysis of the 2016 Comprehensive Survey of Living Conditions in Japan.”
The study relied on subjective reports from individuals, which means there is a more direct line between the results of the study and the actual, felt experience of the participants. This translates to a greater accuracy in terms of describing the lived experience of those with hearing loss.
The survey used for data included the reports of 137,723 people with no diagnosis of dementia, living at home, and aged 65 or older. 12,389 of those surveyed (9%) said they had hearing loss. The goal in studying the data was to find correlations between those who self-report hearing loss and limited outdoor activity, psychological distress and memory difficulty.
Participants with hearing loss reported greater limitations in outdoor activities at a rate of 28.9%, while only 9.5% of those with normal hearing said they had trouble outdoors. While only 5.2% of participants with normal hearing said they had trouble with their memory, 37.7% of those with hearing loss reported difficulty remembering things. When it comes to psychological distress, 39.7% of participants with hearing loss said they experienced it, compared to 19.3% of those with normal hearing.
Statistical studies use something called an adjusted odds ratio (AOR) to describe as best they can the rates at which the specific issue being studied is the cause of the outcomes that researchers see. The adjusted odds ratios for the study predicted:
- Those with hearing loss are two times as likely to report limited outdoor activity
- Those with hearing loss are 2.1 times as likely to report psychological distress
- Those with hearing loss are 7.1 times as likely to report memory loss.
Seek Treatment for Hearing Loss
If you or someone you know is experiencing hearing loss, the best course of action is to make an appointment for a hearing test immediately. The not-for-profit Better Hearing Institute recommends getting a hearing test once a decade until age 50, and once every three years thereafter. Keeping track of your hearing health is one of the best ways to stay healthy long into old age, and hearing aids are the best way to stay active despite hearing loss.