Many of us take our hearing for granted, and it’s only when a problem develops that the true impact of hearing loss becomes apparent. Hearing is a part of communication, and therefore by extension plays an important role in an individual’s emotional wellbeing.

Elderly man hard of hearingA study by the National Council on Aging, a US-based organisation, is one of the scientific research projects to find a clear link between hearing loss and mental health. A total of 2,300 hearing-impaired adults aged 50 or older took part in the study, which found that individuals with untreated hearing loss were more likely to report cases of anxiety, depression and paranoia than those with strong hearing or treated hearing loss; they were also less likely to participate in organised social activities.

Hearing is a major part of communication, so any difficulty understanding what others are saying is a barrier to that communication. If the hearing loss goes untreated, then extended periods of impaired communication can lead to individuals isolating themselves – often to avoid the embarrassment of having to ask others to repeat themselves – which is a known pre-cursor to feelings of loneliness and depression.

Yet the impact that hearing loss has on our emotional state goes deeper than simply being an impairment to communication. Our brains have emotional responses to sound – some of these are developed but some are conditioned. These emotional responses cause us to develop feelings – positive and negative – and even experience physical reactions to sound; being denied these therefore has a big impact on our emotional experience.

To understand just how sound toys with our emotions, hearing aid specialist Amplifon has put together an interesting and in-depth guide to the impact of sound on the brain. It looks at the areas of the brain that are affected, such as the thalmus, which uses sensory data to regulate sleep, the amygdala which processes memories, and Broca’s area, responsible for feelings of empathy, pain and social awareness. The amygdala, for instance, plays a key role in fear conditioning and acts as an ‘alarm bell’ for the brain-based sensory data from sights and sounds. Research from the University of York, meanwhile, has shown that the posterior superior temporal sulcus fulfils another important function – judging the importance of tone in sound, to read cues as to the meaning of speech.

Yet just as loss of hearing can be to the detriment of emotional wellbeing, restoring lost hearing can have a highly positive impact. The National Council on Aging study found that people with impaired hearing who begin using hearing aids typically experience “significant” improvements in many aspects of their lives, from personal relationships and social life to enhanced feelings of independence and even an improvement in their sex life. Interestingly, in all these respects, the families of the hearing aid user were even more likely to report improvements than the individual.

Dr James Firman, president and CEO of The National Council on the Aging, wants more people to face up to their hearing loss and take steps to dealing with the potential consequences of it. “It is very sad that millions of older people are letting denial or vanity get in the way of treatments that can significantly improve the quality of their lives,” he said. “Doctors and family members should insist that hearing impaired seniors seek appropriate treatment.”

Anyone worried about their hearing can see their local GP to arrange a hearing test and discuss the options that are available to them on the NHS. Alternatively, there are a number of high street specialists who can conduct a hearing assessment and advise on the remedies available for hearing loss.

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