Hearing loss does not just affect our ability to listen. It is now abundantly clear that it affects how we think about things and remember them, how socially connected we feel to those around us, and our sense of well-being and happiness. This is especially true as we age.
Hearing loss and social connectedness. The reasons that individuals with hearing loss feel socially disconnected are multifactorial. Hearing loss makes it harder to listen to those around us, making it effortful to understand what someone is saying. While this negatively affects the quality of communication and can lead to listening fatigue, it also makes us feel more distant from the people with whom we like to connect, and leads to frustration when a person constantly has to ask someone to repeat themselves. As a result, a person experiencing hearing loss may withdraw from social activities, which further increases the feelings of frustration and loneliness. They also may develop depression and anxiety due to their communication and social barriers.
Hearing loss and cognitive ability. When a person has hearing loss, the act of listening alone consumes many “cognitive resources,” or the limited ability we have to understand things in our environment and meet our goals. This is because the auditory signals that the person receives are strongly degraded, and listening thus requires more concentration. If too few resources are left over, then we can’t perform other tasks that are important in everyday life. For example, a person with hearing loss may have problems remembering what someone said, because they were too concentrated on just the act of listening. Even worse, depleted resources can impact our abilities in other senses. Consider a situation when a person is operating a motor vehicle. If a person with hearing loss is trying to understand what a passenger is saying, then it may become more difficult to coordinate their hands, feet, and eyes to safely drive a car.
Hearing loss and dementia. So far we’ve considered that hearing loss can affect the quality of our social relationships and emotional well-being, and considered that hearing loss can over-tax our cognitive ability. Recent research has now alarmingly highlighted that hearing loss significantly raises the risk of dementia, and hearing loss is the number one largest modifiable risk factor for dementia in middle-aged adults (Livingston et al., The Lancet. 2020 Aug 8;396(10248):413-46). The reasons for this risk are not entirely clear, but research is needed to identify if hearing loss is playing a causal role.
What can we do? Our laboratory is concerned with identifying changes in brain function that are responsible for feelings of social isolation, frustration, increased effort, and cognitive decline. Our goal is to better under stand the spine that connects the pathologies and patterns of damage to the ear, to the brain changes that follow suit, to the feelings of social well-being and overall cognitive ability.