Hearing loss tied to poorer physical, mental health

Older adults with hearing loss are more likely than peers with normal hearing to require hospitalization and suffer from periods of inactivity and depression, according to results of a new study by experts at Johns Hopkins.

The team's analysis of the health survey data from 1,140 men and women ages 70 and older with hearing loss found that those with hearing deficits were 32 percent more likely to have been admitted to a hospital than 529 older men and women with normal hearing. All study participants had volunteered to have their hearing tested over a four-year period as part of a larger ongoing study, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

The latest NHANES findings, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association online June 11, are believed to be the first to show the broader economic and long-term effects of hearing loss on general health.

"Hearing loss may have a profoundly detrimental effect on older people's physical and mental well-being, and even health care resources," says senior study investigator Frank Lin, an otologist and epidemiologist. "Our results underscore why hearing loss should not be considered an inconsequential part of aging but an important issue for public health," says Lin, an assistant professor in the schools of Medicine and Public Health. According to Lin, as many as 27 million Americans over age 50, including two-thirds of men and women ages 70 and older, suffer from some form of hearing loss.

The study also found that older adults with hearing loss were 36 percent more likely to have prolonged stretches (lasting more than 10 days) of illness or injury and 57 percent more likely to have deep episodes (for more than 10 days) of stress, depression, or bad mood. NHANES participants answered detailed questionnaires about their physical and mental well-being.

Lead study investigator Dane Genther, a resident in Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery, says. "Health policymakers really have to consider hearing loss and its broader health impact when making decisions, particularly for older people." Genther says he supports expanded Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement for hearing-related health care services, wider installation of hearing loops in various facilities, and more accessible and affordable approaches for treating hearing loss.

Lin says that social isolation resulting from hearing loss may explain the physical and mental declines—as well as the cognitive deficits—that afflict older adults. This, in turn, may lead to more illness and hospitalization, he says. His team already has further research under way to see if treating hearing loss with counseling and hearing aids can reduce people's risk of cognitive decline and dementia.

NHANES participants were tested for hearing loss from 2005 to 2006 and from 2009 to 2010. For the test, each study volunteer listened to a range of soft and loud sounds, from 0 decibels to 100 decibels, in a soundproof room. Hearing specialists define such a deficit as recognizing only those sounds louder than 25 decibels.

Funding support for this study and the NHANES study was provided by the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Additional research support was provided by the Eleanor Schwartz Charitable Foundation and a Triological Society and American College of Surgeons Clinician-Scientist Award.

In addition to Lin and Genther, Johns Hopkins researchers involved in this study were Kevin Frick, David Chen, and Joshua Betz.