Victorian Hearing Clinical Audiologist Maryam Zargarbashi spent 3 days in Germany attending a global conference with more than 300+ delegates across 21 countries. The conference “hearing well and being well – a strong scientific connection” explored the importance of social connectedness, the importance of family support, the positive cognitive changes and neuroplasticity in our brain with improvements in hearing.

Maryam’s highlight was the presentation by Professor Barbara Weinstein from the graduate centre, University of New York.

Professor Barbara Weinstein, is a world-renowned expert in hearing health in geriatric populations with a keen interest in dementia populations. She has authored over 150 research papers and designed outcome measure guidelines implemented across a number of medical practises worldwide.

Professor Weinstein’s presentation in Frankfurt explored the importance audiologists play in our industry in delivering products, services, and business models that foster well-being and support healthy ageing.

Literature shows a strong social environment provides emotional and intellectual stimulation and this is critical to longevity. Social connectedness is the number one predictor of longevity and mortality and social connectedness is directly related to being able to hear and communicate. With this in mind, Professor Weinstein went on to discuss the importance of measuring pre and post amplification fitting benefit by assessing the changes in levels of both subjective and objective social isolation and loneliness as a function of improved hearing.

She explains that in addition to measuring amplification benefit through speech discrimination tasks, we should be addressing social and emotional isolation changes more directly given its significant relationship with well-being.

So how does the loss of hearing break down social connectedness?

Hearing loss affects our ability to follow, retain and interpret spoken messages. This will worsen with age and with the acoustic challenges of the real world, there is greater demand on the individual suffering with a hearing loss. This results in increased listening effort and cognitive effort. Should the listening effort become so great and reward so little, individuals lose motivation to participate. With poor motivation, the desire to remain connected diminishes and people then withdraw. This situation is intensified with increasing degrees of hearing loss with significantly higher rates of isolation and withdrawal.

Research by Professor Weinstein shows:

  • Patients with poor social connectedness see their GPs more frequently.
  • Patients who report higher levels of loneliness are admitted to residential care facilities at a younger age and are more likely to suffer from depression, poorer self-efficacy and increased cognitive decline.
  • The degree of hearing loss is directly related to measured social isolation and emotional loneliness, the worse the hearing the lonelier they feel.
  • Hearing loss is undertreated and under diagnosed.
  • Hearing aid use in multiple studies have shown a significant reduction in self-reported and objective measures of loneliness.

This measure was impacted more positively with worsening degrees of hearing loss.

The key take away message

Given the relationship between hearing status with isolation and loneliness, treating underlying hearing loss is a modifiable risk factor for healthy ageing.

Therefore, all patients who report feels of loneliness should be referred for audiology as part of a team care arrangement. The diagnosis and treatment of hearing loss has a profound positive upstream consequence of social connectedness, self-efficacy, motivation and overall wellbeing.