Hearing loss in older people affects mental, physical, social health

Hearing loss in older people may be associated with restriction of outdoor activities, anxiety, and memory loss, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Tsukuba in Japan, and published in the journal Geriatrics & Gerontology International.

Researchers sought to shed further light on the relation of hearing loss and other illnesses among older people. They examined three key areas and found hearing loss had a clear link with all three, especially memory loss. 

The team, led by Masao Iwagami, PhD, lead author of the study, looked at the large-scale 2016 Comprehensive Survey of Living Conditions of Japan, a nationwide, population-based cross-sectional questionnaire of more than 220,000 households. From this, they targeted 137,723 survey respondents aged 65 or older and without dementia. The survey's self-reported responses on conditions including hearing loss allowed valuable comparisons to be made.

About 9 percent of the survey respondents examined had reported hearing loss, according to the study abstract. Their responses also showed the condition increased with age.

The researchers further adjusted and refined their analysis to account for factors such as smoking, alcohol intake, and income. Of those reporting limitations in outdoor activities such as shopping or travel, 28.9 percent of those with hearing loss were affected versus 9.5 percent of those without. For psychological distress it was 39.7 percent compared to 19.3 percent. For memory loss, the gap was the most profound: 37.7 percent versus 5.2 percent. These patterns were similar irrespective of age or sex, researchers said.

Hearing loss is the world's fourth-leading cause of years lived with disability. The condition may worsen an array of mental, physical, and social complications. As over 90 percent of hearing loss is age-related, its burden is notably growing amid aging populations, researchers say.

Hearing ability is integrally tied with communication, and hearing loss leads to communication barriers. This in turn increases stress and restricts the ability to venture outdoors. It may also be tied with cognitive decline and dementia.

"Hearing loss takes an enormous toll on older people in so many ways, physically and mentally, while limiting activities of daily living," said Yoko Kobayashi, PhD, study co-author. "Greater awareness of the burden of hearing loss will help improve their quality of life. Measures such as hearing aids and social support by volunteers in the community can also provide them with assistance."