According to AARP Foundation President Lisa Marsh Ryerson, approximately 17% of American adults over 65 are isolated. There is a difference between being isolated and feeling isolated, though physical isolation can contribute. Isolated feelings can arise even when you are amongst a crowd of people or surrounded by loving friends and family members. This is particularly true if hearing loss is impacting your ability to feel connected to people.

Hearing loss is a condition that affects millions of Americans and a huge number of older adults in particular. It’s estimated that one in three adults over the age of 65 has hearing loss, a significant percentage. And the incidence of hearing loss increases tremendously for those over the age of 75, with half of this demographic experiencing the condition. While isolation can occur without hearing loss, it is an enormous contributing factor.

The isolating effects of hearing loss

At its core, hearing loss is an issue that makes communication difficult. We live in a highly verbal society. While about 30 million people experience hearing loss in some form or another, the default means of communication tends to be verbal speech. While activists and advocates for people with disabilities fight daily for a more accessible world, people with speech and hearing conditions are often expected to make modifications to accommodate hearing folks.

This can be frustrating for people with hearing loss, particularly if it is undiagnosed and untreated. With age-related or noise-induced hearing loss, the initial symptoms can be subtle and evolve slowly over time. That might mean that the initial degeneration in your ability to hear conversation doesn’t hugely impact your communication, rather, it is simply difficult to understand others and requires more-than-usual amounts of energy to engage in simple conversations.

We are human and our bodies and minds have evolved to avoid uncomfortable feelings and draining situations. It is only natural that over time, we participate and connect with others less and less.

The harmful effects of isolation

However, that innate desire can lead to a harmful caccooning of ourselves and a shrinking of our lives. We know that chronic — persisting for a long time — isolation increases the risk of mental health disorders. Depression, anxiety and substance abuse are more likely to arise if an individual experiences isolation. Moreover, physical health can be adversely impacted, too. Diabetes, heart disease and even high blood pressure are linked to feelings of isolation.

Ways to combat isolation

Isolation is not a predetermined fate and you can take steps to guard against feelings of isolation. Make it your goal to engage in at least one social activity and one conversation with a family member or friend each week. It helps if you can make appointments for these opportunities for connection, like attending a weekly community activity or meeting. You can also set up a recurring date for a phone call or coffee break with a loved one.

How treating hearing loss can help

It may be that you could be engaging easily in these sorts of interactions, but hearing loss prevents you from following through because you find socializing and conversation too difficult or effortful due to hearing loss. The great news is that intervening in hearing loss can make a profound impact on your hearing life. A large majority of people who have chosen to treat hearing loss with hearing aids report an improved relationship with family members.

Some people with hearing loss can feel isolated even when they’re living with a spouse or loved one. A 2007 study revealed that half of people whose spouses have hearing loss reported that it has adversely affected their marriage. Deciding to invest in a healthier hearing life means that you’re also investing in connection and conversation with those around you. Instead of feeling left out on the sidelines, you’ll be able to rejoin the community already around you.

Schedule a hearing consultation

While hearing aids aren’t always the solution for everyone, they might be your path towards a better hearing experience. The first step is to schedule a hearing consultation with an audiologist who can help you find a clear diagnosis. From there, you can work together to determine the best path forward towards an improved hearing future.