Amid the constant news cycle reporting data on the novel Coronavirus and talks of “flattening the curve”, the prevailing advice from experts is to socially distance ourselves (or, to put it simply, stay away from others). While this technique is essential for decreasing the spread of diseases, some have warned of possible (though necessary) consequences - including the negative impact that a decrease in social interaction can have on our physical and mental well-being. While this topic is being thrust into the spotlight due to current events, the issue of social distancing is not a new one for many people in the United States.
Millions of Americans live everyday with undiagnosed or untreated hearing loss. This sensory deficit often leads to a decrease in social interaction, which may be initiated by either the hearing-impaired person or those that they are trying to communicate with. In restaurants, at parties, at church, or even in the quiet of their own homes, a person with hearing loss may misunderstand something that is said to them. Though the importance of hearing everything that happened during your grandchild’s day at school, updates from your friends, or the exact words of a blessing may not be life-sustaining, the loneliness that sets in when you realize that you are not able to fully enjoy or understand the moments that others want to share with you is immense.
The inability to hear certain frequencies or speech sounds can negatively impact a person’s ability to understand their communication partner in quiet situations, noisy situations, or a combination of both. The most obvious consequence of this is a decreased ability to communicate with other people. One may hear a different word than what was actually said, leading to miscommunication, misunderstanding, and a breakdown in conversation. In a best-case scenario, a person might mishear a story at a party. In a worst-case scenario, a patient with hearing loss may mishear their doctor and fail to take away key portions of diagnosis, treatment, or counseling.
Older individuals and those with preexisting conditions need to communicate with their doctors. Social distancing during this epidemic has increased awareness of the importance of regular communication between physician and patient. As a result, measures (such as the increased use of telehealth) are being implemented at many practices. Many of these same patients, however, have been experiencing a lower level of communication and interaction with their health care providers for years due to their untreated hearing loss. This invisible barrier, while not as tangible as physical distance, also needs to be addressed by both communicators.
One might think that misunderstandings in social situations are not as dire as misunderstandings in a healthcare setting, however, research shows differently. One review of studies on the topic found that on average, loneliness leads to a 29% increased likelihood of death (Holt-Lunstad, Smith, Baker, Harris & Stephenson, 2015). Hearing loss is associated not only with an increased risk of loneliness, but also an increased likelihood for the affected person to suffer from anxiety and depression (Mener, Betz, Genther, Chen, &Lin, 2010 ). Additionally, an increased risk of cognitive decline and an overall decrease in quality of life have been associated with untreated hearing loss (Lin, Yaffe, Xia, et al., 2013).
So why should we care? I think the answer lies in the videos we see time and time again on social media and the internet - the videos of babies hearing for the very first time the voices of those that love them and care for them and want to welcome them into their world. The importance of and need for communication does not decrease as we age, and something similar happens to adults who hear with hearing aids for the first time after living with an undiagnosed hearing loss. A whole new world opens up to them - a world of small talk at parties, of quiet jokes over dinner, of grandchildren talking in the house. We don’t know what valuable social interactions or what important information we may be missing due to an unknown or untreated hearing loss. If the prevalence of this issue was more widely known, we would be taking more drastic measures to make sure that no hearing loss went untreated.
What steps can we take to improve our own lives or the lives of those around us that we believe are living with this invisible social barrier? The first step is to keep talking. Don’t stop talking to someone based on an assumption that they can’t hear you or will misunderstand you. If someone does misunderstand you, don’t give up on the conversation. Re-word the sentence and give your conversation partner more clues to figure out what was said. If you are the one misunderstanding someone, don’t give up and bluff your way through a conversation. Advocate for yourself! Ask the person to whom you are listening to re-word or repeat themselves, or to look at you so that you can use visual clues to help understand.
Get a hearing test and seek help! Just because you have a hearing loss does not mean that you need to leave it untreated and allow it to affect your quality of life. Try a hearing aid on and see how it improves your hearing. Bring a loved one with you to gauge how much better you would hear an important voice. Learning about and experiencing what a hearing aid can do for you does not mean that is your only option. There are other available options to help you hear better on the phone, while watching TV, and in other unique situations. Don’t let a hearing loss distance you from the things you love to do.
Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., & Layton, J. B. (2010). Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review. PLoS medicine 7(7), e1000316. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316
Mener, D. J., Betz, J., Genther, D. J., Chen, D., & Lin, F. R. (2013). Hearing loss and depression in older adults. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society 61(9), 1627–1629. https://doi.org/10.1111/jgs.12429
Lin, F. R., Yaffe, K., Xia, J., Xue, Q. L., Harris, T. B., Purchase-Helzner, E., Satterfield, S., Ayonayon, H. N., Ferrucci, L., Simonsick, E. M., & Health ABC Study Group (2013). Hearing loss and cognitive decline in older adults. JAMA internal medicine 173(4), 293–299. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.1868