It is well known among auditory scientists and clinicians that hearing loss from any cause,
including ototoxicity, has substantial psychosocial consequences on adults, such as
communication difficulties, social isolation, social stigmatization, cognitive impairment, lower
wages, higher unemployment, and depression (Heffernan et al., 2016; Sprinzl et al., 2010).
However, even in medical and scientific literature, there is often an assumption that these
effects apply mostly to elderly adults, usually with more severe forms of hearing loss (Monzani
et al., 2008). In fact, hearing loss has equally significant consequences on adults of all ages, and
can potentially effect mental health and well-being among younger patients (age less than 65
years) more profoundly than older individuals (Tambs, 2004).
It is tempting to conclude that adults with mild to moderate hearing loss should have minimal
deterioration of quality of life because they still have meaningful capacity to hear relative to
those who are severely hearing impaired or deaf. In reality, adults with mild and moderate
hearing loss report primarily negative consequences of this handicap, including poor identity
(feeling old and unintelligent), decreased participation in social activities, communication and
relationship difficulties, fewer community and professional activities, and more loneliness
(Heffernan et al., 2016). Below, the effects of mild and moderate hearing loss on cognitive
ability, social engagement, and psychological health are examined in greater detail.
Hearing loss in older adults is known to be an independently associated risk factor for poor
cognitive function and early onset of dementia (Fortunato et al., 2016), and this association is
true when specifically considering adults with mild and moderate hearing loss. For example,
cognitive testing scores (including assessment of orientation, concentration, language, praxis,
memory, and executive function) have been shown to decline 30-40% faster in individuals with
hearing loss beginning with only a 25 dB threshold shift (defined as mild hearing loss), and
increase in direct proportion with the severity of an individual’s baseline hearing loss (Lin et al.,
Dementia (memory loss) is also more prevalent among adults with mild or moderate hearing
impairment. The increased risk of dementia becomes evident for hearing loss of only 25 dB, and
increases in a significant log-linear relationship with each incremental 10 dB threshold shift
beyond this (Lin et al., 2011). In this same study, the rate of dementia incidence was almost
twice as high for patients with mild hearing loss and three times as high for patients with
moderate hearing loss compared to normal hearing individuals.
Social and Professional Engagement
Hearing impairment can understandably lead to frustration and decreased participation in
social and professional activities, but these restrictions are not limited to older or more severely
hearing-impaired individuals. For example, among a cohort of men and women with a mean
age of 46 years and mild or moderate hearing loss (mean hearing threshold of 40 dB),
participation in social activities was significantly reduced, relational problems with family and
friends were increased, and emotional difficulties at work were higher than matched controls
with no hearing loss (Monzani et al., 2008). Younger individuals with hearing loss are also more
likely to seek early retirement. Two separate cross-sectional studies showed that working men
age 31-45 years were approximately 1.5x more likely to seek early retirement for each 10 dB
hearing loss compared to normal hearing workers (Helvik et al., 2012). This effect was more
pronounced than in older workers (age 46-65 years), who showed only a 1.2x increased
likelihood of seeking early retirement with each 10 dB loss of hearing.
Psychological Health and Quality of Life
Mild to moderate hearing loss has been demonstrated to reduce quality of life and increase
rates of depression. For example, among a cohort of 472 individuals of whom 106 had mild to
moderate hearing loss (thresholds of 27-55 dB), quality of life (defined by emotional, social, and
communication function) was significantly reduced in those with hearing loss, and this handicap
was perceived as severe by those affected (Mulrow et al., 1990). A separate cross-sectional
study of 1,328 participants age 60 years and above found that mild hearing loss (thresholds of
25-40 dB) was associated with a significantly (1.83x) higher risk of depressive symptoms
compared to normal hearing individuals (Gopinath et al., 2009). Among younger, working
individuals, mild and moderate hearing impairment was associated with significantly worse
psychological well-being than normal hearing subjects, especially if their professions involved
high-stress work (Monzani et al., 2008).
Hearing impairment does not need to be severe to have a significantly detrimental effect on the
lives of adults. It is therefore clear that any effective measures to prevent hearing loss would be
beneficial to cognitive function, social participation, workplace success, psychosocial health,
and other measures of quality of life. Ototoxicity is one potential cause of hearing loss, and
could be prevented or minimized by improved understanding and awareness. Such prevention
would begin with routine screening of drugs for ototoxic effects. Given the various
consequences of even mild and moderate hearing loss on adults, routine ototoxicity screening
should be a logical priority for drug manufacturers and regulators.
Fortunato, S., Forli, F., Guglielmi, V., de Corso, E., Paludetti, G., Berrettini, S., & Fetoni, A.R.
(2016). A review of new insights on the association between hearing loss and cognitive decline
in ageing. Acta Otorhinolaryngologica Italica 36, 155-166.
Gopinath, B., Wang, J.J., Schneider, J., Burlutsky, G., Snowdon, J., McMahon, C.M., Leeder, S., &
Mitchell, P. (2009). Depressive symptoms in older adults with hearing impairment: the Blue
Mountains Study. J Am Gereatr Soc 57(7), 1306-1308.
Heffernan E., Coulson, N.S., Henshaw, H., Barry, J.G., & Ferguson, M.A. (2016). Understanding
the psychosocial experiences of adults with mild-moderate hearing loss: an application of
Leventhals’s self-regulatory model. Int J Audiol 55(Suppl 3), S3-S12.
Helvik, A-S., Krokstad, S., & Tambs, K. (2012). Hearing loss and risk of early retirement. The
HUNT study. Eur J Pub Health 23(4), 617-622.
Lin, F.R., Metter, E.J., O’Brien, R.J., Resnick, S.M., Zonderman, A.B., & Ferrucci, L. (2011).
Hearing loss and incident dementia. Arch Neurol 68(2), 214-220.
Lin, F.R., Yaffe, K., Xia, J., Xue, Q-L., Harris, T.B., Purchase-Helzner, E., et al. (2013). Hearing loss
and cognitive decline among older adults. JAMA Intern Med 173(4), 1-14.
Monzani, D., Galeazzi, G.M., Genovese, E., Marrara, A., & Martini, A. (2008). Psychological
profile and social behaviour of working adults with mild or moderate hearing loss. Acta
Otorhinolaryngologica Italica 28, 61-66.
Mulrow, C.D., Aguilar, C., Endicott, J.E., Velez, R., Tuley, M.R., Charlip, W.S., & Hill, J.A. (1990).
Association between hearing impairment and the quality of life of elderly individuals. J Am
Geriatr Soc 38(1), 45-50.
Sprinzl, G.M., & Riechelmann, H. (2010). Current trends in treating hearing loss in elderly
people: a review of the technology and treatment options – a mini-review. Gerontology 56,
Tambs, K. (2004). Moderate effects of hearing loss on mental health and subjective well-being:
results from the Nord-Trondelag Hearing loss study. Psychosom Med 66, 776-82.
David Hicks, M.D.: Dr. Hicks directs business development at Turner Scientific, and has
significant training and experience in clinical treatment of ear disorders. Contact:
Jeremy Turner, Ph.D.: Dr. Turner is the founder and Chief Scientific Officer at Turner Scientific.
He completed his Ph.D. in auditory neuroscience, and has more than 22 years’ experience in
preclinical hearing loss, tinnitus, and ototoxicity research. Contact: