Hearing Loss Risks to Mental Health & Relationships

Author – Cierra Garrow (She/Her) is a Registered Psychotherapist and Registered Marriage and Family Therapist with many years of clinical and teaching experience. Cierra incorporates the outdoors, land-based interventions, cooking interventions, equine-assisted psychotherapy, and creative approaches that meet clients where they are in their journey. She is also the Owner and Clinical Director of Cambrian Counselling and Wellness.


Can Hearing Loss Impact my Mental Health, Memory, or Relationships? 

Hearing loss is often dismissed as a minor inconvenience, but its impacts extend far beyond simply not catching every word in a conversation. When I attended the Meet You In Kentucky Conference in Lousiville in May, Dr. Dawn Heiman presented on the intersectionality of hearing loss, mental health, and the opportunity for audiologists and therapists to work together.  According to research by Johns Hopkins Medicine, National Institutes of Health,  Lin et al., (2011), Dr Dawn Heiman (2019), and other sources, the consequences of untreated hearing loss can be profound, affecting mental health, cognitive functioning, social interactions, and overall quality of life of an individual, couple, and family.

Hearing loss significantly impacts an individual’s mental health, memory, and relationships. Struggling to hear can lead to a constant state of stress and frustration for the individual, which in turn can contribute to developing or exacerbating anxiety and depression. Furthermore, the brain’s auditory cortex, responsible for processing sounds, undergoes structural and functional changes due to hearing loss. The brain then has to work harder to process sounds, diverting resources from other cognitive functions such as memory, attention, and executive functioning (Heiman, 2019; Lin et al., 2011).

  • Memory: The extra effort required to understand speech can reduce the brain’s ability to encode and retrieve memories effectively.
  • Attention: The need to focus intensely on listening can exhaust attentional resources, making it harder to maintain concentration on other tasks.
  • Executive Functioning: Functions such as problem-solving, planning, and decision-making can suffer as the brain allocates more effort toward auditory processing.

Can Hearing Loss Strink my Brain Cells?

The increased cognitive load can accelerate cognitive decline and increase the risk of dementia (Lin et al., 2011). The reduced auditory input results in decreased stimulation of the brain and its activity, which can lead to atrophy (shrinkage) of brain cells involved in hearing and comprehension (Heiman, 2019).

Mechanisms of Brain Cell Atrophy (Lin et al., 2011)

  • Decreased Neural Activity: Lack of auditory input reduces neural activity in the auditory cortex, leading to cell atrophy.
  • Increased Cognitive Load: The brain compensates for hearing loss by reallocating cognitive resources from other functions, overburdening areas responsible for memory, attention, and executive function.
  • Structural Changes: Prolonged hearing loss can cause structural changes in the brain, including the shrinkage of gray matter in regions associated with sound and speech processing

I Don’t Want to go Out Anymore Because I can’t Hear Anyone

One of the most insidious effects of hearing loss is social isolation. People with hearing loss often find it challenging to engage in conversations, especially in noisy environments. This can lead to withdrawal from social activities, increasing feelings of loneliness and isolation. The emotional toll of not being able to participate fully in conversations or missing out on social cues can lead to a sense of exclusion and lowered self-esteem. Over time, social isolation can severely impact mental health, leading to depression and anxiety symptoms. Maintaining social connections is crucial for mental well-being, and hearing loss can create significant barriers to this (Heiman, 2019).

How Do I Cope With My Partner’s Hearing Loss?

Hearing loss doesn’t just affect the individual; it impacts their relationships as well. Miscommunications and frustrations can arise when one partner struggles to hear the other. This can lead to misunderstandings, feelings of being ignored or neglected, and overall strain on the relationship. The emotional disconnect caused by hearing loss can be profound. Partners may feel isolated within the relationship, unable to share moments and experiences fully. The frustration of repeated miscommunications can lead to arguments and resentment, further distancing partners emotionally. Intimacy relies heavily on effective communication. Hearing loss can diminish opportunities for spontaneous conversations and shared laughter, reducing the overall sense of closeness. This reduction in intimate interactions can weaken the bond between partners, making the relationship feel less supportive and connected. When one partner experiences hearing loss, the other often takes on a caregiver role, which can be physically and emotionally exhausting. This shift in dynamics can create an imbalance in the relationship, where the caregiving partner may feel overburdened and the partner with hearing loss may feel guilty or dependent. Over time, these issues can erode the quality of the relationship, leading to further emotional distress (Heiman, 2019).

Comorbidities of Mental Illness

The connection between hearing loss and mental illness is a critical area of concern. People with untreated hearing loss are at a higher risk of developing mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and even psychosis (Heiman, 2019).  The constant strain of trying to hear, coupled with the potential for social isolation and cognitive decline, creates a perfect storm for mental health concerns.

So Why are People not Getting their Hearing Checked?

Many people delay addressing their hearing loss for various reasons. Here are some common excuses and why it’s important to overcome them:

“My hearing is not that bad.”

Hearing loss often progresses slowly, and many people adapt to the gradual decline without realizing how much they are missing. Regular hearing tests are essential for early detection and intervention. Even mild hearing loss can have significant impacts on mental and cognitive health (Heiman, 2019). This is why Cambrian Counselling and Wellness is introducing a hearing screening as part of our intake package to support earlier identification, referral, and support.

“I don’t like the way hearing aids look.”

Modern hearing aids are sleek, discreet, and much more aesthetically pleasing than in the past. They come in various styles and colours to match personal preferences and can be nearly invisible when worn. Additionally, the benefits of improved hearing far outweigh aesthetic concerns. Additionally, advances in hearing aid technology have made them highly effective for various types and degrees of hearing loss. Audiologists can customize hearing aids to individual needs, ensuring optimal performance. More information can be found HERE.

“I’m too young to need hearing aids.”

Hearing loss can affect people of all ages, not just the elderly. Children with hearing loss often struggle socially and academically. Ignoring hearing loss can lead to more significant problems down the road, regardless of age. Early intervention can prevent the negative impacts on mental health, cognitive function, and social interactions (Heiman, 2019).

Addressing hearing loss promptly is crucial for maintaining mental health, cognitive function, and healthy relationships. By overcoming common excuses and seeking appropriate treatment, individuals can significantly improve their quality of life. Don’t let the risks of hearing loss impact your well-being and relationships—take action today for a healthier, more connected future.

 

Thinking about Receiving Support for Your Hearing Loss or Hearing Impaired Loved One?

Cambrian Counselling and Wellness has amazing therapists who can support you with the emotional and psychological impacts of hearing loss, including depression, anxiety, and social isolation and provide system navigation to connect with an audiologist. Therapists can help improve communication strategies, foster better understanding in relationships, and provide coping mechanisms for dealing with the daily challenges of hearing impairment.

You can check out our therapist’s bios HERE and book a free 20-minute consultation HERE. to see who might be the best fit for your needs, price range, and insurance coverage. 

 

References

The above information was sourced from the following resources:

Heiman, D. (2019). Top 5 things you and your doctor should know about hearing loss. Advanced Audiology Consultants. Retrieved from Helping Your Hearing.

National Institutes of Health. (2023). Hearing aids slow cognitive decline in people at high risk. NIH Research Matters. Retrieved from NIH.

Lin, F. R., Metter, E. J., O’Brien, R. J., Resnick, S. M., Zonderman, A. B., & Ferrucci, L. (2011). Hearing loss and incident dementia. Archives of Neurology, 68(2), 214–220. Retrieved from NCBI.

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