Can hearing loss lead to loneliness?

As many as 33 percent of the over-75s feel somewhat lonely and 9 percent even experience strong loneliness, according to the Loneliness Monitor 2020.

Loneliness is a complex problem and to tackle it effectively, a clear insight is needed into the causes. It is well known that there is a link between loneliness and health. But is there a correlation between loneliness and hearing loss? Supported by the Deloitte Impact Foundation, Deloitte, Beter Horen and the Municipality of The Hague conducted research into this question.

“Loneliness is a major problem in our society. It is a personal drama that sometimes also has consequences for people's mental and physical health," says Menno ter Wal, Senior Manager at Deloitte. “Fortunately, there are now more and more initiatives to tackle loneliness. But these initiatives are insufficiently focused on tackling the causes. There needs to be more insight into what the causes are, so that professionals and policy makers can get to work with a solution. Deloitte is strong in analyzing and gathering new insights and through the Deloitte Impact Foundation we are happy to use these skills pro bono to contribute to a better society. Loneliness is not a problem of only the elderly. It is everyone’s problem. Everyone has or knows a story of someone who is lonely. It is our joint responsibility to improve that.”

Dutch research was lacking

Deloitte started a research together with Beter Horen, both partners of the government program ‘One against Loneliness’, and the Municipality of The Hague. “There are about 500,000 people in the Netherlands with untreated hearing loss. And you can imagine that if you hear less, you have fewer contacts and undertake less. International research has shown that there is a link between loneliness and hearing loss. But Dutch research results were still lacking,” explains Menno. “In the neighborhoods of Loosduinen and Segbroek in The Hague, we have now examined almost 250 people over the age of 60. Beter Horen has measured the degree of hearing loss. And together with emeritus professor of sociology Jenny Gierveld, creator of the National Loneliness Monitor, we researched the possible presence of loneliness.”

No more birthdays

What turns out? “Our research shows that the number of close contacts is associated with loneliness. And we have an indication that the number of contacts is related to hearing loss. The personal stories of the people in the study also show this,” says Menno. “A lady told me that she always looked forward to the birthdays of her children and grandchildren, but now no longer attends because she cannot follow the conversations in the crowds. There was also someone who went to church and community center every week, but stopped going because she doesn't want to constantly ask 'What are you saying?'.” More research is needed to establish the link between loneliness and hearing loss.

Harrowing stories

These are harrowing stories and the policy aimed at tackling loneliness must therefore take these into account. “It is important for policymakers and professionals to be aware of the role that the number of meaningful contacts play in the development of loneliness. And how these could be affected by hearing loss. Of course it is good to organize meetings in the community center, for example. But also pay attention to accessibility for the hearing impaired. If no attention is paid to acoustics, an important part of the target group may be left out. Professionals such as general practitioners, district nurses and welfare workers should be aware that lonely people may have a hearing problem. And hearing care professionals, in turn, play a role in signaling a reduction in the number of meaningful contacts,” Menno says passionately. “Only together can we fight loneliness.”

'A lady told me that she no longer attends her grandchildren's birthdays because she cannot follow the conversations in the crowds'

- Menno ter Wal, Senior Manager at Deloitte Consulting

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