The Link Between Hearing Health & Happiness

As an “invisible condition,” hearing loss affects many different areas of our life – including our mental health. In recent years, mental health has received more awareness in the national discussion around overall health and well-being. In a similar way, our emotional responses and mental well-being are “invisible” to the people in our lives.

When we are able to communicate with our loved ones, talk through our problems, or get help with a therapist, we bring to the surface the things that make us unhappy and bring us stress, anxiety, and depression. Here, we take a look at the ways in which untreated hearing loss could affect our mental well-being and our emotional responses, and how treating hearing loss can bring significant benefits to this oft-overlooked area of our lives.

Establishing a Link Between Hearing & Happiness

In many different ways, researchers have studied a link between sound, hearing, and emotional responses. According to Dr. Maria N. Geffen, Assistant Professor of Otorhinolaryngology at the University of Pennsylvania, “Emotions are closely linked to perception and very often our emotional response really helps us deal with reality. For example, a fear response helps you escape potentially dangerous situations and react quickly. But there are also situations where things can go wrong in the way fear response develops. That’s what happens in anxiety and also in PTSD – the emotional response to the events is generalized to the point where fear response starts getting developed to a very broad range of stimuli.”

Similarly, researchers at McGill University found that test subjects “got the chills” when hearing music that appealed to them. A correlating PET scan while listening to music revealed the release of dopamine, one of the primary neurochemicals that enable us to feel happiness. A 2006 French study found that “dopamine is essential in maintaining the health of auditory nerve neurons and the way they respond to sound stimulation.” In Zurich, researchers found that music and emotional responses were linked: “Because emotions enhance memory processes and music evokes strong emotions, music could be involved in forming memories, either about pieces of music or about episodes and information associated with particular music.” Other studies have linked the ways in which pieces of music could evoke certain autobiographical memories.

At Washington State University – Vancouver’s Hearing and Communication Lab, Christine Portfors (Associate Professor, School of Biological Sciences) and David Perkel (Professor of Biology and Otolaryngology, University of Washington) explored “how dopamine affects brain cells, synapses and neural circuits involved in auditory processing.” Produced by our brains and released by the hypothalamus, dopamine regulates different bodily systems (cognition, sleep, behavior, etc.). In terms of our psychological development, dopamine plays an important role in reward and motivation. Amongst people who experience cognitive diseases (schizophrenia, Parkinson’s, etc.), there is a marked decrease in the amount of dopamine in their systems.

How is dopamine linked to hearing and to our mental health? Dr. Portfors draws the correlation for us: “A song you love or a familiar voice can make you feel good. How do you relate the hearing part to the feeling good part? Because dopamine is related to the expectation of something rewarding happening, we think dopamine actually alters how your neurons respond to particular sounds or voices.” Perhaps this is why the right song at the right time can help us finish our workout with a bang or help us through a heartbreak. From these studies, we can assume the importance of healthy hearing and our emotional well-being. 

How Untreated Hearing Loss Affects Your Cognitive Abilities

The results were striking: the worse the initial hearing loss was, the more likely the person was to develop dementia.

As with our other senses, hearing is processed in the brain. Through an intricate system of conducting sound to translating sound waves into neural signals, we experience sounds thanks to the processing abilities in the auditory center of our brains. This is how we recognize and remember sounds, and how we gather and store information that helps us interact with the world around us. In addition to keeping us safe and alert, our ability to hear enriches our emotional experiences.

Untreated hearing loss brings many negative consequences to our overall health and well-being – namely our cognitive abilities, which over time could affect our social and emotional health. A series of studies from Johns Hopkins University have linked untreated hearing loss with the increased risk for developing dementia. Dementia, a general term for memory loss and other cognitive conditions that could interfere with your daily life, may be a byproduct of untreated hearing loss because of the cognitive strain placed upon the brain when hearing loss is left untreated.

In 2011, Johns Hopkins researchers “monitored the cognitive health of 639 people who were mentally sharp when the study began. The researchers tested the volunteers’ mental abilities regularly, following most for about 12 years and some for as long as 18 years. The results were striking: the worse the initial hearing loss was, the more likely the person was to develop dementia. Compared to people with normal hearing, those with moderate hearing loss had triple the risk.” Dr. Frank Lin, lead researcher on the study, does point out that “simply being at increased risk does not mean a person is certain to develop dementia.” The research does suggest, however, that “that a common pathology may underlie both [hearing loss and dementia] or that the strain of decoding sounds over the years may overwhelm the brains of people with hearing loss, leaving them more vulnerable to dementia.”

Furthermore, when certain neural pathways go unused with hearing loss, the disuse of these structures could be harmful for the brain. According to Arthur Wingfield at Brandeis University, “It’s not necessarily that you’re losing brain cells,” but “certain structures of brain cells can shrink when they don’t get enough stimulation.” Wingfield raises the question of whether the “use of a modern hearing aid might allow these brain structures to recover their previous size and function.” In other words, seeking treating to hearing loss could bring significant benefits in our cognitive function, thus potentially reducing the risk for developing dementia.

Another link could lie in our abilities to communicate and retain our interpersonal relationships with untreated hearing loss.

How Untreated Hearing Loss Can Lead to Social Isolation

As social animals, we have many different kinds of relationships in our lives that are important to our mental health. From colleagues to friends, from partners to children, these relationships make us feel supported, loved, and valued. The foundation of all of our relationships is communication. Unfortunately, with untreated hearing loss, the ability to recognize speech and communicate is seriously compromised. Hearing loss makes speech recognition challenging in different ways, from mishearing what someone has said, to confusing different speech sounds or phrases to misunderstandings. One early sign of hearing loss, for example, is asking people to repeat themselves often or thinking that everyone around you is “mumbling.” These challenges in communication could in turn lead to a breakdown our relationships with our colleagues, friends, and loved ones.

Unfortunately, leaving hearing loss untreated and trying to fill in the gaps with coping mechanisms, such as pretending to hear, does not help. In fact, Social Work Today reported that people “develop ways to cope with and manage hearing loss in their daily lives” that may be negative in nature, signaling a change in personality that comes from difficulties hearing, such as being more irritable, anxious, or avoidant. Again, over time, people with untreated hearing loss tend to withdraw socially from interpersonal relations.

In May 2015, a survey found that “of the 27 million U.S. adults with hearing loss, the number one cited relationship that suffered was the one with their romantic partner (35%), followed by friends, family members and coworkers.” One in three people over the age of 65 and 50% of people over the age of 75 experience some hearing loss. Hearing loss is not relegated to older Americans, however. In fact, it is the third most common medical condition in the US, affecting 48 million people of all ages. If left untreated, difficulties in communication due to hearing loss could harm the myriad relationships we have.

When it comes to romantic relationships, we can clearly see how poor communication and difficulties with speech recognition could be jeopardizing. In these intimate relationships, communication is particularly important. It is through conversation and verbal communication that we share our inner worlds, needs, desires, joys, and sorrows. With untreated hearing loss, serious conversations – or even light-hearted ones – could become frustrating when one or more people in the relationship feel unheard or misunderstood. Furthermore, people may experience frustrating in having to repeat themselves multiple times.

Expanding beyond our intimate relationships, hearing loss interferes with our friendships, our relationships with our children and grandchildren, and our colleagues. In big group settings, we may experience difficulty hearing multiple speakers at once. When we go out to parties or restaurants, untreated hearing loss could make us feel lost in a conversation against loud background noise. Over time, these experiences might become prohibitive when we feel as though we have nothing to contribute to the conversation. It’s no wonder that people with untreated hearing loss tend to feel anxiety or stress when faced with these social interactions and thus become avoidant. Fortunately, there is a solution.

Tying It All Together: Hearing Health and Happiness

While they may, at first glance, seem to be quite unrelated, we can see how hearing health and happiness are linked. According to Social Work Today, “Hearing loss can create a psychological solitary confinement…There is a cultural continuum to hearing loss. A sense of belonging is important to mental health.” When it comes to our basic needs, psychiatrist Dr. William Glasser points to five: survival; love and belonging; power and recognition; freedom; and fun. Social Work Today points out that “the stress of living with hearing loss can put people at risk for many reactions, including distrust, chronic sadness or depression, nervousness, anger, irritability, isolation, poor self-image, feelings of incompetence or inadequacy, or feeling marginalized.”

It is important to draw this correlation between our hearing health and our mental health, as both exist nearly invisibly compared to other health conditions. And, it is important to point out that indeed, there is a solution: treating hearing loss reconnects us to the many different sounds that we experience on a day to day basis that support our emotional well-being, from our partner’s voice to our favorite albums.

Schedule a Hearing Consultation

If you are experiencing changes in your hearing, know that there are solutions. There is no reason to live disconnected from the sounds and people you love. Contact your audiologist or hearing specialist today to schedule a consultation.