It's well known that untreated hearing loss is linked to several health dangers, including higher rates of dementia, falling and depression. Experts think a lot of this stems from the social isolation caused by hearing loss.
"People begin to withdraw from activities that would put them in touch with others and that can lead to loneliness and depression." explained Harvey Abrams, PhD, a longtime audiologist on the graduate faculty at the University of South Florida in Tampa who studies the effect of hearing aids on overall quality of life.
This isn't a rare problem: Hearing steadily declines as we age. By 100, nearly everyone has hearing loss.
The good news? More than a decade ago, research revealed that treating hearing loss via hearing aids or other devices like cochlear implants an improve overall quality of life. Since then, a wealth of research has shown similar benefits. Let's take a look:
Hearing aids linked to overall better health
In 2020, a team from three U.S. insurers, reporting on a survey of more than 20,000 older adults, observed that people with severe hearing loss who didn't wear hearing aids were more likely to say they were in poor health and were less likely to leave home or exercise regularly. This was not true of people who wore hearing aids—even if their loss was severe. People who wore hearing aids were also less likely to report depression.
A breakthrough study in 2019 analyzed what happens in the three years after you get your first hearing aid. It found that among people with newly-diagnosed hearing loss, getting hearing aids cut the risk of developing dementia by 18 percentage points, the risk of a fall-related injury by 13 percentage points and the risk of developing anxiety or depression by 11 percentage points.
To reach this conclusion, a large team of researchers led by Elham Mahmoudi, a health economist at the University of Michigan, pulled five years of claims data nationwide from a managed care provider, finding nearly 115,000 seniors who met their criteria—a new diagnosis of hearing loss and no history within the previous year of the medical issues under study.
Hearing aids linked to reduced cognitive decline
Researchers have long known that dementia is more common among people with hearing loss. In fact, when left untreated, hearing loss may be a sign that dementia could come about two years earlier than a person without hearing loss, according to research on hearing loss and cognitive decline. This doesn't mean severe hearing loss, either—even slight hearing loss could be linked to cognitive decline, according to 2019 research from a team based at Columbia University.
Do hearing aids help? A long-awaited 2023 randomized controlled trial provided clarity. Over a span of three years, hearing aids and regular counseling with an audiologist reduced the typical rate of cognitive decline in older adults with hearing loss. However, the benefit seemed limited to people who had other risk factors, such as high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, diabetes, lower educational levels, and lower income.
Still, "the clinical takeaway is that almost anyone with hearing loss as an older adult should get their hearing checked and address hearing issues if there are any. There's really no downside to it. Hearing intervention comes at no risk," stated Dr. Frank Lin, lead author of the study and director of the Cochlear Center for Hearing and Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, in an interview on the study.
"Can it help your cognition in the short term if you're a completely cognitively healthy person? No, but it can help cognition in the longer term," he added. "That longer-term study for healthy people is what we’ll do over the next several years."
Hearing aids linked to lower risk of falling
A 2023 study revealed what reserachers have long suspected: Consistent use of hearing aids is linked to a reduced risk of falling. Read more about hearing loss and fall risk, and what you can do about it.
Hearing loss affects mental health
Not wearing hearing aids is a risk factor for loneliness in other research. And there is a bit of evidence that getting a hearing aid or cochlear implant can prevent loneliness from deepening over time. The key is how you feel. One person might not socialize often but feel rich in friendship and another look popular to observers but feel lonely. Either way, hearing loss can affect how other people perceive you, as Abrams observed.
Loneliness too easily cascades into depression. In a 2019 overview of 35 studies covering more than 147,000 older adults, hearing loss increased the odds of depression by 47% (it wasn’t clear in this overview that hearing aids helped). Suicidal thinking, most often a symptom of depression, is linked to hearing loss as well. Hearing loss may also exacerbate or contribute to schizophrenia and other psychoses late in life.
Less psychological distress among hearing aid wearers
In data from more than 25,600 U.S. adults, people with hearing loss were more likely to say they use antidepressants and antianxiety medication as well as mental health services. Hearing aids helped: Among those who had moderate hearing loss, more than 77 percent reported psychological distress, compared to 23 percent of those with hearing aids.
The link between hearing loss and cardiovascular disease
Age-related hearing loss is usually in the higher frequencies. But Abrams recalls that during his years in a Veterans Administration hospital, he saw men with gradual loss in their low-frequency hearing. It turns out that low-frequency hearing loss may be a marker of a greater chance of stroke, peripheral vascular disease and heart attack.
A 2020 analysis of data of more than 1,300 African Americans found that participants with poorer scores on a combined measure of heart risk factors had more hearing loss. Healthy weight, physical activity, good blood pressure and fasting glucose were each linked to better hearing. Research in Iceland also linked untreated hearing loss in men to a greater chance of dying in the next five years, most often from heart disease.
Interestingly, hearing aids are associated with better heart health. In a 10-year study of nearly 4,000 British men age 63 to 85 who were living in the community, men with untreated hearing loss were more than a third more likely to have a stroke or heart attack and to die of a cardiovascular event than men without hearing issues, but wearing a hearing aid lowered their risk. It's not clear why hearing aids were linked to a lower heart disease risk, though it may indicate that these men are taking better care of their health overall.
Ready to get help?
Bottom line: If you have hearing loss, the evidence so far indicates that getting hearing aids can improve your health in many ways, beyond helping you hear better. If you're ready to get a hearing test, visiting our directory of consumer-reviewed hearing aid clinics near you is a smart next step.