Kathryn Bardwell, MSW May 2021
Graduating with Masters of Social Work with a specialization in Gerontology May 2021 from LSU and pursuing Masters of Public Health concentrating on behavioral health in the fall also from LSU. Areas of interest are rural healthcare, people living with dementia and their caregivers, and advocacy for women’s health.
There is a silent epidemic that affects every person in life, yet it is seldomly brought to light; loneliness. Experiencing loneliness has actually nothing to do with physically being alone, it is feeling disconnected and isolated from others and the world around you. Loneliness is likely to become more familiar as people age due to many things: life transitions, loved ones passing away, moving to a different city, retiring, feeling left out. However, for older adults, one of the leading causes of loneliness is losing their ability to hear. With that being said, this article examines the relationship between loneliness and hearing loss in older adults in addition to the multitude of increased health risks that can also result from untreated hearing loss.1
understanding the problems and characteristics of hearing loss
Hearing loss is one of the leading causes of loneliness and social isolation in older adults. Experiencing hearing problems makes tasks for older adults even more difficult, can create barriers in communication between family members, and cause individuals to feel alone and misunderstood.1
It is common for older adults with hearing difficulty to feel agitated when communicating with others because they cannot understand clearly and may feel behind in conversations. Many older adults with hearing impairment may feel embarrassed or ashamed to ask others to repeat themselves, and often others get frustrated as a result. After a while, older adults with hearing loss who experience these difficulties start to engage less in conversation and social settings, some even withdrawing from socializing completely.
Older adults will stop participating in activities that once gave them the feeling of connectedness and community, such as religious services, family gatherings, and staying in touch with friends.1 Older adults may spend their days isolated in their homes with no socialization and engagement with others due to their hearing loss.
Loneliness and depression in older adults can cause an increased risk of an array of health issues such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, poor immunity, anxiety, cognitive impairment, and dementia. Dr. Steve Cole, Ph.D., director of the Social Genomics Core Laboratory at the University of California, LA, describes loneliness as a fertilizer for other diseases and promotes several different types of wear and tear on the body.3
how prevalant is hearing loss?
Hearing loss and loneliness have such a strong relationship that every 1 in 5 people experience hearing loss and for people under 70 years old, every decibel drop increases their likelihood of experiencing loneliness by 7%.4 The more older adults experience hearing loss, the lonelier they are likely to feel which impacts their entire wellbeing. As mentioned before, experiencing loneliness as an older adult can increase the risk of harrowing comorbidities such as depression, dementia, and even death. Loneliness has evolved into a disease of its own and is now considered just as detrimental to someone’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.5 Often similar to a dementia diagnosis, many older adults suffer from hearing difficulties and do not perceive it as a problem or do not want to treat it as such.
what is the impact of hearing loss?
When considering this social problem’s impact, it is important to explore determinants of health. Many studies have found that there is such thing as a genetic risk for loneliness that is followed by significant presentations of disease and disorder.6 Social determinants of health also play a major role when considering the impact of hearing loss and loneliness.1
Whether or not older adults experiencing loneliness due to hearing loss have available and accessible healthcare is contingent upon their likelihood of seeking and receiving resources. Another vital role is the knowledge and awareness the older adult’s family has in regard to hearing loss and loneliness. Older adults with lower socioeconomic status and economic stability are also at a greater risk of not being able to access treatment and care for hearing impairment, which puts them ultimately at a greater risk for experiencing loneliness and more health issues.1
identifying the unresolved gaps and issues
The unresolved gaps and issues of hearing loss and loneliness begin with the stigma around older adults and hearing loss. Because hearing loss is still widely considered a natural part of aging, this issue does not receive the medical attention or awareness that it should. Health insurance does not cover the cost of hearing aids nor routine hearing tests and check-ins which only promotes that this issue is not a priority, yet so many older adults suffer from loss of hearing.5
Older adults also are not incentivized to use hearing aids because of the out-of-pocket expense and fear of not understanding the operations of the device. There are also gaps and issues within the development of hearing aids and their effectiveness. Unfortunately, hearing aids do not serve as the perfect fix and can sometimes cause more distress because of the possible poor quality of the device.
The gaps and issues within this social problem for older adults only can begin to reach a resolution if there are more education and awareness provided on hearing loss as a public health issue, especially with its strong tie to loneliness. Strides towards this resolution have been made within the past decade by scientists who began to examine the harms of hearing loss and loneliness which resulted in discovering that both have extreme medical consequences.5
what this means for senior living communities and caregivers
Understanding the prevalence of hearing loss and loneliness is incredibly important when working with older adults and their family members. It is necessary to understand that hearing loss is not just a natural, possible part of aging, but it is a medical issue that needs serious and continuous attention by our communities and medical professionals. In addition, hearing loss does not exist in a vacuum where it affects nothing in someone’s life. For many people, losing the ability to hear also means losing their ability to connect, understand and engage which impacts their entire wellbeing and each system of their life. Social Workers, caregivers and senior living providers serving older adults should advocate for medical awareness around hearing loss and loneliness because both are a disease with severe psychological consequences.
1. National Institute of Health (NIH). Hearing Loss and Older Adults.
2.Older adults reporting social isolation or loneliness show poorer cognitive function 4 years later
3.Myeloid differentiation architecture of leukocyte transcriptome dynamics in perceived social isolation
4. Myeloid differentiation architecture of leukocyte transcriptome dynamics in perceived social isolation
5. Untreated Hearing Loss Linked To Loneliness And Isolation For Seniors
6. IGEMS: the consortium on Interplay of Genes and Environment across Multiple Studies.
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