If someone were to ask you what challenges a person with age-related hearing loss might encounter, what would you say? Miscommunications? Difficulty in social situations? Science has shown that untreated age-related hearing loss can have even more serious effects than these.
A growing body of research demonstrates the connection between untreated hearing loss and increased risk for several medical conditions, including depression, anxiety, falls, dementia, and cognitive decline. Older adults with untreated hearing loss are also more likely to incur higher medical costs and spend more and longer stays in the hospital.
The most surprising link of all, however, may be the connection between age-related hearing loss and premature death. A recent study conducted at the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health examined the links between hearing loss, mortality, and family relationships.
Researchers found that mortality is elevated among individuals with hearing loss, and the connection is especially strong among men and women under the age of 75 years and among those who are separated or divorced. To assess this link, researchers analyzed data from 50,462 adults enrolled in a hearing loss study, as well as their death data and information on marital status and number of children. Researchers also controlled for health variables such as physical activity, smoking, and alcohol use.
Interestingly, mortality risk appeared to diminish among adults with a well-hearing partner. Researchers hypothesize that hearing-impaired individuals with a partner may have a lower risk for early mortality because their partner provides support and allows the individual to maintain greater social activity than those without a partner. Being in a relationship may also lower the risk of mortality by mitigating the detrimental economic effects of hearing loss.
In addition, a spouse may encourage a hearing-impaired individual to utilize hearing aids or other forms of treatment or technical support. A well-hearing partner can also assist in consulting health services for any medical conditions or injuries that may arise.
Researchers also considered other family relationships, such as parental status. Both partnership and parental status decreased the risk of early mortality among individuals with age-related hearing impairment. This may be due to support and companionship during periods of poor health. Accident-related mortality was lower among hearing-impaired individuals with a partner or children as well. Bo Engdahl of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, first author of the study, theorizes that family members may be able to help prevent traffic-related accidents. This would explain the lower risk among those with a spouse/partner or children.
Vegard Skirbekk, PhD, Columbia Aging Center faculty member and professor of Population and Family Health at the Mailman School of Public Health, concludes, “Our findings verify that excess mortality among the hearing impaired can be particularly high among individuals with certain family constellations, such as men who are divorced or women who do not have children. When governments develop plans to lower the incidence of hearing impairment, they may want to consider the family dimension when designing intervention and social and health support systems.”
With a research-proven connection between age-related hearing impairment and early mortality, it is imperative that individuals seek testing, diagnosis, and treatment for hearing loss. Please contact our audiology practice today if you suspect that you or a loved one is experiencing hearing loss. We are eager to provide the quality care you need—and it may even lengthen your life!
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