While it's common for people to become less outgoing the older they become, a recent Swedish study suggests that hearing loss accelerates this personality change. The finding is concerning because older people who are less extroverted are more likely to become socially isolated, which can lead to serious health problems and even death.
The study, supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), followed 408 men between the ages of 80-98 over a six year period. Every two years, the participants were asked to complete a questionnaire to assess their physical and mental health, personality and emotional stability. Researchers were unable to connect the changes they observed to any physical or cognitive impairments; however, they did find a direct link between hearing loss and a decrease in the tendency to be outgoing.
The study was conducted by Anne Ingeborg Berg and Boo Johansson from the ADA - Gero Group, Department of Psychology, University of Gothenburg. Results of the study appeared in the February 2014 issue of the Journal of Personality.
Hearing loss and quality of life
The Swedish study lends more credibility to hearing health professionals' belief that untreated hearing loss negatively affects quality of life and emphasizes the importance of identifying and treating hearing loss, especially among the elderly.
A 1999 study by The National Council on the Aging (ACOA) surveyed 2,300 adults over the age of 50 and found those with untreated hearing loss reported higher incidence of anxiety, depression, paranoia, and inclination to participate in social activities compared to those who wear hearing aids. Another study by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) found the incidence of depression increased five percent among older adults who had no hearing problems compared to eleven percent among those who did.
Why is social isolation such a serious problem?
Communication can be difficult and exhausting for hearing impaired individuals, regardless of their age.
Children and young adults with hearing impairments can feel lonely and unhappy, especially if they are unable to spend time with other hearing-impaired peers. Social isolation can lead to communication delays, which can lead to problems with language development, academic achievement and low self-esteem.
Among the elderly, social isolation can actually increase the risk of dying.
A March 2013 study published in the Proceedings in the National Academy of Sciences reported findings of data collected on 6,500 men and women age 52 and older who participated in the English Longitudinal Study of 2004. Those who had limited interactions with family, friends or community were classified as socially isolated and asked to complete a questionnaire to assess loneliness. During the eight years of follow up study, social isolation and loneliness predicted the early death of 918 of the participants.
Hearing aid stigma
Many with age-related hearing loss (presbycusis) may benefit from wearing hearing aids; however, many choose not to.
According to the American Speech-Hearing-Language Association (ASHA), approximately 28 million Americans have hearing loss, a number that has doubled in the past 30 years. Yet a 2010 MarkeTrak survey, which reports on trends in hearing loss, found that as few as four in 10 of individuals with moderate to severe hearing loss and one in 10 individuals with mild hearing loss wear hearing aids. The study also revealed that on average, an individual will wait seven years after their diagnosis before purchasing a hearing aid.
So why don't more people wear hearing aids - and why do they wait so long to purchase them? Two-thirds of the non-hearing aid users in the ACOA study didn't believe their hearing loss was significant enough to warrant wearing amplification. One-half of the non-hearing aid users said hearing aids cost too much. One in five of the population said wearing hearing aids would embarrass them or make them feel old.
That's unfortunate, because hearing aid users surveyed in the ACOA study reported higher levels of happiness, improvement in their relationships at home and a greater sense of independence. 56% reported an improvement in relations at home, 50% reported improved feelings of self, and 48% reported an improvement in overall quality of life. Improvements reported by the families of hearing aid users were even more significant in each of these three areas.