Elderly with hearing difficulties experienced memory loss, loneliness during COVID-19 lockdown

Face masks act as a barrier to communication and are problematic for people with hearing loss who also rely on lip-reading and facial expression.

People aged over 70 years with hearing difficulties experienced heightened depression, loneliness and memory problems during the COVID-19 lockdown, according to an online survey conducted by UK health experts. "The impact of social isolation has been massive on the elderly population, but our survey shows that people with hearing impairment have been more substantially affected," said Professor Annalena Venneri from the University of Sheffield's Neuroscience Institute. Venneri, who is also the co-author of the study, said measures put in place to help limit the spread of the virus —such as face coverings and social distancing — have limited the social interaction of the elderly people to a greater extent.

"Our survey indicates that the pandemic is having a substantial impact on mental health and cognitive abilities of this vulnerable group, she said.

The study, published recently in the International Journal of Audiology, was carried out by experts at the University of Sheffield, The University of Manchester and Lancaster University.

The 8.3 million people in the UK with the condition are likely, argue the team, to be selectively disadvantaged by the coronavirus pandemic.

Lead author Dr Jenna Littlejohn from The University of Manchester said, "Hearing loss, one of the leading causes of disability in older adults, is already commonly associated with increased rates of depression, social isolation, and risk of dementia and cognitive decline."

"Because we were not able to conduct face to face interviews during the lockdown, this study was clearly not able to estimate the effects of the pandemic on the over seventies without internet access."

Eighty people over the age of 70, with mixed hearing abilities, completed two detailed questionnaires, 12 weeks apart, during May and June 2020 when lockdown restrictions were in place.

However, Littlejohn said, it would be logical to suspect that these negative associations could be even stronger in people who do not have access to the internet as they may be even more socially isolated: video calls have been lifelines for many.

Cancellation of medical appointments, the use of face masks and the limitation in the use of technology due to hearing loss are thought to all be important factors.

Many routine face-to-face audiology appointments have been postponed, suspended, or offered remotely.

Face masks act as a direct barrier to communication and are particularly problematic for people with hearing loss who also rely on lip-reading and facial expression.

And the enforced social distancing means people with hearing loss might struggle to use the telephone and video calls to stay in touch with family and friends.

Dr Littlejohn added: We suspect the use of face coverings and limited group meetings may remain for a while yet, and so our work into the longer-term collateral effects of the pandemic is ongoing.

We need to ensure people with hearing loss get the correct support from health and social care professionals in terms of supporting mental health and investigating the risk of cognitive impairment due to the enforced social isolation on these people."

The study was funded by Deafness Support Network (DSN), a Cheshire-based charity, and supported by the NIHR Sheffield Biomedical Research Centre and the NIHR Manchester Biomedical Research Centre (BRC).

Also read: People over the age of 65 are more likely to suffer from COVID-19 reinfections

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