Hearing loss affects one in six of the UK population and eight million of these are aged sixty or over. There are many hidden risks of hearing loss that we may not even think about.
Hearing loss is often associated with mental health conditions. Not being involved in conversation, withdrawing or becoming isolated can all contribute to depression. A study by Shukla and colleagues in 2019 found that older adults with hearing loss have higher odds of depressive symptoms, compared to adults with normal hearing. In these cases the use of hearing aids is very important, to help reduce the symptoms of depression or anxiety.
Risk of dementia is also increased by up to five times for those with hearing issues and the risk can escalate, depending on the degree of hearing loss. In a study by Frank Lin from John Hopkins University, it was found that mild hearing loss doubled the dementia risk; moderate loss tripled the risk and people with a severe hearing impairment were five times more likely to develop dementia. People with mild loss may not even realise it, therefore it’s very important to keep on top of your hearing health and get a test!
Most types of dementia are irreversible – so how does hearing loss increase the risk of dementia? Studies show that hearing loss causes ‘shrinkage’ in the part of the brain responsible for hearing as it becomes inactive over time due to not being stimulated. This causes changes in the structure of the brain and its tissue, leading to dementia.
Hearing loss may also increase the risk of falls or accidents. Our ears pick up small cues from around us that help with our balance and if hearing loss is present, this makes it more difficult for our brain. Frank Lin states that hearing loss makes your brain work harder just to process sound. This subconscious multi-tasking may interfere with some of the mental processing needed to walk safely, which may lead to falls and injuries.
An increased risk in hospitalisation has also been found with those who have hearing loss. It has also been associated with health conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, anaemia, chronic kidney disease and sleep apnoea. A study by Friedland and colleagues in 2009 showed that low-frequency (sloping) and flat losses were strongly correlated with cardiovascular disease. There are many studies that link hearing loss and health conditions. A study by Genther et al in 2015 found that hearing-impaired older adults experience a greater incidence and annual rate of hospitalisation than those with normal hearing.
It’s important to remember that our ears are more than just for hearing: hearing loss can have a large impact on our overall health and well-being.