A “comorbidity” is defined as the simultaneous presence of two or more chronic diseases or conditions in a patient. Examples of this include anxiety/depression, obesity/high blood pressure, COPD/pneumonia, and diabetes/neuropathy. Likewise, there are several conditions that have been linked to hearing loss. These comorbidities have been found to affect people in various ways, including social isolation, depression, cognitive decline, and a reduction in overall quality of life.
1. Loneliness and social isolation As we’ve seen many times in our practice, people who don’t hear well tend to become less involved in activities with other people. This lessens social interaction and communication, leading to withdrawal. Unfortunately, we’ve also seen many instances of isolation because family members decide it’s too difficult or frustrating to try to communicate with their loved one, so they don’t visit or call as often -or at all.
2. Depression Loneliness and social isolation can very easily cause a person with hearing loss - or anyone for that matter - to slip into depression. A recent study shows this has more of an effect on women than men.
3. Risk of falls Much like that in bats and dolphins, the human brain uses sound to determine spatial cues - where are we in relation to objects around us. These minute cues help us maintain orientation to keep us from falling, which is a major risk in the elderly. When the brain doesn’t receive these cues due to hearing loss, it cannot use them to help with stability.
4. Cardiovascular disease Certain types of sensorineural (nerve) hearing loss have been associated with heart disease and stroke. This could be due to decreased blood flow to the organ of hearing, and the hearing loss pattern could also be used to determine who is at risk for cardiovascular disorders.
5. Diabetes Several studies have found that the link to diabetes and hearing loss is strong. This seems to affect people under 60 more frequently, and is independent of gender. The theory is that diabetes also reduces blood flow to the cochlea (organ of hearing), and that high blood glucose levels can damage the nerves as well as structures within the organ of hearing.
6. Cognitive impairment/dementia This link has probably received the most attention in recent years, especially in the field of audiology. A landmark study by Johns Hopkins University found that hearing loss was an independent marker for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. When factors 1 and 2 - isolation, loneliness, and depression - are not addressed, the natural cognitive decline in the aging process is sped up. This isn’t to say that untreated hearing loss will cause dementia/Alzheimers, but the heavier cognitive load on the brain has been shown to have a definite negative effect.
How can hearing aids help? We know that untreated hearing loss will have the above effects, as well as others not mentioned. And, we know that hearing aids will help reduce or even reverse some of the issues. This is due to lightening the load of the brain - enhancing and returning the speech cues to the brain for better speech understanding and easier communication, especially in social settings. The person with hearing loss can find enjoyment in socialization with friends and family members again, enjoy TV, or other situations that they have previously avoided. Hearing aids improve the sound awareness cues that the brain needs to help prevent falls - this can also help reduce stress and anxiety for people and their family members . If any of the above is of concern to you, please call Professional Hearing Center and we will be happy to assist you or answer any questions you may have.