Hearing loss is an incredibly common condition that affects around 12 million people in the UK, — roughly one in six people — and that number is set to grow to 14 million in the next 10 years.1 Despite so many people being affected by the condition, there is still some stigma around losing your hearing, and many people don’t want to admit it is happening to them.
In fact, on average, it can take someone up to seven to 10 years of suffering from hearing loss before they even book a hearing test. Action On Hearing Loss reports that only around 40% of people who need hearing aids currently wear one.1 Unfortunately, this can cause significant consequences not only to your general day-to-day life, but also to your mental health.2
How hearing loss can affect the brain
Most of us are familiar with the obvious effects of hearing loss, like no longer being able to perceive high pitched sounds or having trouble following conversations in crowded places, but what you may not know is that hearing loss can also have an effect on how your brain works.
As hearing is a function of the brain, your hearing and your brain are inextricably linked. Research has found that if you have hearing loss and haven’t treated it (with a hearing aid, for example), then your brain is using more power than it should to understand the world around you. This is referred to as ‘effortful listening’ and has been shown to increase the stress response, as well as affect cognitive function.3
The longer hearing loss is left untreated, the more impact it can have, altering the function and structure of specific areas of your brain. This can speed up the process of cognitive decline in later life.3
Hearing loss and social isolation
Naturally, as hearing loss develops, it can have more of an impact on different areas of your life. What you may have noticed at first as just needing to have the TV a little louder, can develop into struggling to catch important information during meetings at work, or having to ask people to repeat themselves multiple times. Often, this makes us not want to take part in social situations or makes us feel anxious and impacts our self-esteem. Our research has shown that more than two-thirds of people have actively avoided social situations because they struggle to hear.
In fact, trouble with hearing can become so much of a problem that 10% of people we asked said they would skip a meal at a restaurant with friends, 7% would avoid going to their friend’s house for dinner and 6% would miss a play at their child’s school. One in 10 people also said they skip all social events in order to avoid any awkwardness.
Unfortunately, retreating from social life has a huge impact on our mental wellbeing. As humans, we’re naturally social beings, and we need a certain level of interaction to keep ourselves happy and healthy. When we conducted our survey on the impact of hearing loss, we found that struggling with hearing made people feel frustrated, embarrassed, isolated and depressed. This is unsurprising, given that extensive research has shown that not wearing a hearing aid can lead to increased feelings of loneliness1 and emotional distress, and hearing loss has a well-documented link to depression.4
What is hyperacusis and can it cause anxiety?
One hearing condition in particular that has been linked to mental health is hyperacusis.
People with hyperacusis have a hypersensitivity to any sound that is usually perceived as normal. These sounds are essentially everyday sounds — a car horn, a washing machine, a hairdryer, or a crying baby, for example — but people with hyperacusis perceive these sounds as intrusively loud, which can sometimes lead to them becoming uncomfortable and sometimes painful. If you consistently feel that such sounds are extremely loud and intolerable, then you might benefit from getting your hearing checked.
The psychological effects of hyperacusis are similar to those of hearing loss. Researchers have found that without intervention, hyperacusis can not only cause stress and force you to avoid any noise-related activity, it can also lead to chronic anxiety and depression, in turn, making you feel extremely isolated. 4, 5
Will wearing a hearing aid help?
Yes, if you have hearing loss then wearing a hearing aid can definitely help you when it comes to socialising and taking part in the activities you enjoy. Hearing aids can restore impairments at the level of your sensory organ which means you won’t have to strain to understand when people are speaking to you or steer clear of places with lots of background noise.7
Unfortunately, there aren’t specific treatments for hyperacusis, as it usually has an underlying cause that would need to be treated first — this may involve methods to adapt your tolerance to sounds.
Socialising is key to maintaining good mental health, so you should do anything you can to help keep you meeting up with friends and family and enjoying your life. If you’re worried about your hearing at all, you can speak to one of our specialists visiting your local store.
For more information on hearing loss and how it can affect you or your loved ones, visit our dedicated Understanding Hearing Loss page.
If you are concerned about your hearing, try our free online hearing test.
Mental health helplines
Help is at hand If you or a loved one feels isolated or depressed due to hearing loss. If you're concerned about yourself or a loved one, NHS UK recommends these helplines and support groups for expert advice.
Anxiety UK - www.anxietyuk.org.uk
Mental Health Foundation - www.mentalhealth.org.uk
Mind - www.mind.org.uk
Samaritans - www.samaritans.org.uk
Alzheimer's Society - www.alzheimers.org.uk
Relate - www.relate.org.uk
1. Action on Hearing Loss. 2020. Facts And Figures - Action On Hearing Loss. [online] Available at: https://actiononhearingloss.org.uk/about-us/research-and-policy/facts-and-figures/
2. Mick P, Pichora-Fuller MK. Is Hearing Loss Associated with Poorer Health in Older Adults Who Might Benefit from Hearing Screening?. Ear Hear. 2016;37(3):e194-e201. doi:10.1097/AUD.0000000000000267
3. Wingfield A, Peelle JE. How does hearing loss affect the brain? Aging health. 2012;8(2):107-109. doi:10.2217/AHE.12.5
4. Ferrari S, Monzani D, Gherpelli C, et al. Acquired Hearing Loss, Anger, and Emotional Distress: The Mediating Role of Perceived Disability. J Nerv Ment Dis. 2019;207(6):459-466. doi:10.1097/NMD.0000000000000995
5. Aazh H, Moore BCJ. Factors Associated With Depression in Patients With Tinnitus and Hyperacusis. Am J Audiol. 2017;26(4):562-569. doi:10.1044/2017_AJA-17-0008
6. Paulin J, Andersson L, Nordin S. Characteristics of hyperacusis in the general population. Noise Health. 2016;18(83):178-184. doi:10.4103/1463-1741.189244
7. van Hooren SA, Anteunis LJ, Valentijn SA, et al. Does cognitive function in older adults with hearing impairment improve by hearing aid use? Int J Audiol. 2005;44(5):265-271. doi:10.1080/14992020500060370