There are 12 million people with hearing loss across the UK, which is expected to increase to 15.6 million by 2035.1 Of this, 50,000 are children and half are born with hearing loss while the other half lose their hearing during childhood.
Hearing loss is one of the most prevalent chronic conditions affecting people over the age of 65. In the UK, 40% of people over 50 years old have hearing loss, rising to 71% of people over the age of 70.1
The impact can be significant, with communication difficulties affecting relationships, employment, or education, leisure activities like music or social gatherings, and threatening independence.2
When experiencing hearing loss, social situations quickly switch from being enjoyable to daunting. As research collated by The Hearing Care Partnership (THCP) shows, people who have hearing loss are likely to skip social occasions as they no longer feel they can join conversations. This can lead to emotional distress, depression and increase the risk of loneliness.2
People who have hearing loss may also find that crowded environments with background noise are the most difficult places to hear speech, and those who were quite outgoing can quickly become more insular.
Primary care often oversees the care that someone has with their hearing and will provide support to people with hearing loss. The Royal College of GPs is collaborating with Action on Hearing Loss and NHS England and Improvement this year to develop educational resources to give GPs the confidence in recognising the symptoms of hearing loss and appropriately referring patients for a hearing assessment in a timely manner.
The project aims to support GPs implement the latest NICE Guidelines and NHS Accessibility Quality Standard and Guidance across the UK.
Depression and hearing loss
Depression has been linked to hearing loss and unfortunately, both conditions too often go unacknowledged and untreated by healthcare professionals.3
A patient with moderate hearing loss is three times more likely to experience depression and five times more likely if they have a severe hearing loss. Becoming more isolated, seeing less of friends and not doing the things they love can lead to mental health issues like depression.
Research shows that loneliness has a measurable impact on overall health and can increase the likelihood of mortality by 26%.4 The effect of loneliness and isolation on mortality is comparable to the impact of well-known risk factors such as obesity, and has a similar influence as cigarette smoking.5
The idea that loneliness is a risk factor for death is still not widely recognised by health organisations and the public.
People with hearing loss are also more at risk of cognitive decline and dementia. An international review in The Lancet, published in 2017, suggested that hearing loss is one of nine key risk factors for dementia that are possibly modifiable (factors that can be changed to reduce dementia risk).6
Hearing has been identified as the most significant modifiable risk factor for dementia ahead of hypertension and obesity. Research from Action on Hearing Loss shows those who were obese had a 66% increased risk of suffering hearing loss for mid-frequency sounds than healthy-weight adults.6
Balance and preventing falls
Our eyes and ears work together to help us stay balanced and steady on your feet. However, if one of those senses is impaired, our chances of falling increases.
Research suggests that the less you can hear, the less you move. Known as cognitive load, this is when so much attention and brain energy is spent on trying to hear, leaving the brain with less energy overall.7
With better hearing results, people are more likely to do more, feel more confident, stay physically active and are less prone to developing chronic health conditions such as diabetes, stroke and cognitive decline.
Leading a healthy or unhealthy lifestyle can affect the health of your ears. Things such as the foods we eat, the amount of exercise we get, smoking, our mental health and stress are all things that can contribute to your ear health. Stress is one of the leading causes of tinnitus. Lowering your stress levels has been shown to reduce the awareness of tinnitus symptoms, therefore making it easier to live with.
Regular exercise and incorporating certain healthy foods into diets such as fish, bananas, broccoli and dark chocolate, can all help to prevent hearing loss. Regular exercise helps to improve the blood flow to your ears, which in turn benefits your hearing.
People with hearing loss should be encouraged to do the things that give them joy and meaning, whether that’s playing tennis, taking up photography, or visiting places they love. All of these things can help them to feel more positive.
- Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T.B., Baker, M., Harris, T. and Stephenson, D., 2015. Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review. Perspectives on psychological science, 10(2), pp.227-237
- Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T.B. and Layton, J.B., 2010. Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review. PLoS medicine, 7(7), p.e1000316.