Social Engagement and Hearing Loss

Social Engagement and Hearing Loss

Helping patients with hearing loss avoid social isolation could be the key to a better quality of life and better physical and mental health as well as a renewed focus for the hearing healthcare profession.

Hearing, among all the senses, connects us to meaningful conversations andactivities. Audiologic care needs to renew its focus on helping patients regain the communication and social engagement that makes life fun and rewarding.

By Lena Kauffman

When Michael A. Harvey, PhD, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Framingham, Mass, first began seeing patients with hearing loss many years ago, he was not surprised that a reduction in hearing ability would be associated with a host of psychosocial issues, including depression and loneliness. After all, hearing is an incredibly important sense and deafness carries the stigma of being associated with old age and infirmity. However, he was taken aback by just how strongly some patients were impacted by their hearing loss.

Early in his professional pivot toward treating the psychosocial issues of patients with hearing loss, Dr Harvey met a patient who remains imprinted in his memory today. The patient was a WWII paratrooper—an incredibly brave man who had once jumped out of airplanes and into battle. Casualty rates for paratroopers were many times that of regular troops, but the patient said that jumping out of an airplane into a battlefield could not compare
with the terror he felt entering social situations with his hearing loss. “It surprised me,” Dr Harvey said. “Anxiety is one thing, but terror is quite another.”

Today, after decades of treating psychological issues in patients who also have hearing loss, consulting with audiologists, and writing books about the issue, Dr Harvey has come to understand how critical being able to hear and communicate is to both the mental and the physical wellbeing of his patients.

And he is not alone. Researchers across the world have noted how hearing loss correlates with worsening health outcomes, increased healthcare costs, and poorer mental health. In the effort to understand why this is, they are looking at a range of possible factors and potential causal mechanisms. One of the most promising of those factors is how hearing loss that interferes with a person’s ability to communicate might be connected to social isolation.

“Mishearing something is humiliating, and humiliation is
potent stuff,” Dr Harvey said.

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