Many people imagine that hearing loss is not much more than a minor annoyance. In the earliest stages, this might even be true. But then, as hearing loss progresses, it starts to have more noticeable effects on our ability to participate in our social lives. Over time, those with untreated hearing loss tend to shrink from social activities, which can lead to depression, anxiety, and social isolation.
One of the first complaints that someone has when they’re new to hearing loss is: “I get so tired after a short time with other people.” Some people even mistake this exhaustion for a separate age-related concern. Especially when background sound is present—as it is in most social gatherings—it can become very difficult to understand what others are saying, and this wears us out!
In fact, hearing loss forces us to use our brain in a different way than we’re used to. Under normal circumstances, sound coming in from the ears is processed in the brain’s auditory cortex. Here, speech is automatically deciphered and shunted into short-term memory. Then we use our frontal cortex to think about what we’ve heard, formulate a response, etc.
When we have hearing loss, we need to lean more heavily on our frontal cortex just to understand the speech we’re hearing. “Did she say ‘beach’ or ‘teach?’” Context clues become important, and a lot of our energy gets used up just making sure we’ve heard another person correctly. We might not have much energy left to actually participate in the conversation!
As Hearing Loss Progresses, the Effect Is More Pronounced
Of course, once hearing loss becomes an issue, it will pose the same problem over and over again. It may even get worse. Hearing loss, for most people, tends to progress for a period of time and then plateau. Unfortunately, there’s no way to know where it will plateau until it happens, but in the meantime we may see our lives start to change in order to accommodate hearing loss.
Once we’ve had a few unrewarding and exhausting social outings, it’s likely we won’t want to keep attending them. For many people, this is a kind of inflection point in their experience of hearing loss. Hopefully, they take the hint and make an appointment for a hearing test! But others who resist treatment for their hearing loss may shy away from future social gatherings, and can often become isolated. Depression and anxiety are also common complications of untreated hearing loss.
Depression and Anxiety
Whether or not someone becomes socially isolated, untreated hearing loss can still have an isolating effect. If you’re seated at a table with others but can’t hear what they’re saying, it’s a lot like being alone. Conversation swirls around you, but you can’t catch any of it. Sometimes this can be a more isolating feeling than avoiding a gathering altogether, and indeed many people do start to self-isolate when hearing loss makes it impossible to participate in a conversation.
We can also become anxious when we can’t hear what’s happening around us. This tends to encourage us to “stay put,” more than to move around. Our range of movement might become limited even within our own home, while we may not feel comfortable leaving the house. This is all too often a consequence of untreated hearing loss, when a set of hearing aids can help us hear what we need to feel comfortable getting out and about, experiencing the sunshine and getting the physical activity we need to feel our best. We can leave the house to meet up with a friend or loved one for a cup of coffee, and actually hear what they have to say!
Hearing Aids Can Help
Those who get hearing aids, when asked after one year, say they’re satisfied with them at a rate of 85%. Studies have shown that hearing aids help encourage us to be more self-confident, independent, and optimistic. Interestingly, optimism among hearing aid wearers is not limited only to their own lives, but to the state of the world, in general.
If you or a loved one is living with untreated hearing loss, don’t let hearing loss take away your feeling of social connectedness. Make an appointment for a hearing test today, and find out what hearing aids can do to help you live healthier and happier!