March 5, 2020. Not long ago I was in an elevator with Dan, an acquaintance who normally is not out and about without his wife. I asked if he was on his own for the evening, and he said “Yes, as Marie had gone to a restaurant with a number of couples.” Dan is a very sociable fellow, so I asked if he had something going on that he didn’t go as well. “That restaurant is so noisy that it gives me a headache. I don’t appreciate spending an evening being shouted at… and still not understanding a word.” He didn’t give his explanation in a matter-of-fact voice. A new hearing aid wearer, he was annoyed and unhappy that he was missing out on an evening with friends. He didn’t begrudge his wife going out, but he found it lonely without the socializing he was used to doing.
I understood how he felt as many years ago, when I was adjusting to life with hearing loss, I too had to learn that life as I had known it was now different. My husband and I regularly turn down invitations to dinners in large groups or in noisy venues without a second thought now. When we do venture out to a place we know will be noisy or difficult for me to hear, we accept that it won’t be an ideal environment for me.
I thought of the encounter with Dan while reading about the challenges so many people have with loneliness. It’s no secret that people with hearing loss can isolate themselves to some extent because the effort to hear in our increasingly noisy world can become more effort than it’s worth to them. Many postings on this blog have given tips on how to enjoy a restaurant meal, how to survive holidays, etc., and discussed how isolation can lead to loneliness which can lead to depression.
I thought I knew a lot about loneliness and its effects, but I was wrong. An American friend gave me his December 2019/January 2020 issue of AARP magazine (AARP = American Association of Retired Persons) which had an article by Lynn Darling, entitled ‘Is There A Medical Cure For Loneliness?’. The article highlighted research findings by genomics researcher Steve Cole, professor of medicine, psychiatry and bio-behavioural sciences at the UCLA School of Medicine, who found that testing white blood samples of lonely people gave results that shocked him…. “In each of the samples, the blood cells appeared to be in a state of high alert, responding the way they would to a bacterial infection. It was as though the subjects were under mortal assault by a disease — the disease of loneliness.”
The article went on to explain that studies showed that “the impacts of people living in social isolation add almost $7 billion a year to the cost of Medicare, mostly because of longer hospital stays — a result, researchers hypothesize, of not having community support at home.”
Wow! But that wasn’t the most surprising part of the article. It went on to highlight results found by other researchers studying loneliness.…. “Loneliness is a killer — studies have found that it leaves us more likely to die from heart disease and is a contributing factor in other fatal conditions. It makes us more vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease, high blood pressure, suicide, even the common cold. It’s more dangerous to our health, researchers tell us, than obesity, and it’s the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”
Loneliness can affect people who live alone or who are part of a family unit. Dan felt isolated because his hearing loss affected his ability to enjoy outings. These feelings could escalate or he could find a way to accept the new normal and find new ways to enjoy outings with friends…. perhaps with a smaller group at any one time, or in a different restaurant.
The article gave an explanation of why loneliness affects our physiology. Loneliness is interpreted as a threat, placing our bodies on high alert, causing an inflammatory response. While a temporary state of inflammation is good when we have an injury, for example, it’s not great on a long term basis. “Inflammation amps up biological processes leading to tissue breakdown and impairment of the immune system, which, in turn, increases our susceptibility to conditions ranging from heart disease to Alzheimer’s.”
Steve Cole went on to explain that “When you feel lonely, your brain activates inflammation in the white blood cells…One of the weird things we’ve discovered is that inflammation talks back to the brain and changes the way it works…. After loneliness stimulates that white blood cell inflammatory response, the response feeds back to the brain and makes it irritable, suspicious, prone to negative emotions and fearful of meeting new people and making new friends.”
Researchers are now looking at ways to reduce the effects of loneliness through medication to reduce inflammation and increased social contact through various outreach programs. Interestingly enough, no mention was ever made of conditions that could cause people to become lonely or socially isolated, such as hearing loss, a disabling medical condition, reduced mobility, looking after a loved one, the loss of a life partner, etc. Perhaps this was deliberate as there are so many causes of loneliness! (You can read the article at https://www.aarp.org/home-family/friends-family/info-2019/medical-cure-for-loneliness.html)
Loneliness is getting a lot of press lately, as the March 2, 2020 edition of the Wall Street Journal published an article by Andrea Petersen about a book on loneliness written by former US Surgeon-General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy. Dr. Murthy wrote that “loneliness is both pervasive and destructive. In discussions with Americans for his book, he found that “Nobody came out and said, ‘Hi, I’m struggling with loneliness.’ They would say things like, ‘We feel like we are on our own. Nobody cares about us. We feel invisible.’ It became clear to me that for many folks this feeling of abandonment and feeling invisible is driving a lot of emotional pain.”
Dr. Murthy suggests solutions revolving around making connections with others. “Service is a powerful pathway of getting out of loneliness. It takes the focus off of you and puts it onto someone else….volunteering, scheduling time to connect with loved ones and even saying ‘hello’ to strangers.” (You can read the article at https://www.wsj.com/articles/are-you-lonely-youre-not-alone-11583174002)
These two very interesting articles on loneliness made me realize just how devastating an effect it has on our overall well-being. Have you ever been lonely due to your hearing loss? What strategies have you used to get over loneliness? Send an email to email@example.com. You can also comment on this blog, or send a tweet to @HearPEI.
PS….You may be interested in an article I wrote in the latest edition of Canadian Audiologist. (See the Issues In Accountability column at http://canadianaudiologist.ca/current/ )
© Daria Valkenburg