Hearing loss can, in extreme cases, be devastating to the patient and patient’s family alike. As with many other medical conditions, however, the true emotional toll that hearing loss takes on an individual and the people around him or her depends in a large part on the attitude and emotional resiliency of the person involved. Thus, someone who has a strong personality and an overall positive outlook generally will fare better than a patient who is more passive, more self-absorbed, or who has a lower overall sense of self worth.
A look at several real-life cases of hearing loss demonstrates the range of emotional reactions in patients with different personalities:
Patient is male, middle 50s, and has a history of noise exposure from the time he was a youngster. Noise exposure included gunfire and airboat engines. Remarkably, his hearing loss is mild to moderate, although he often doesn’t hear people speaking to him if they are behind him or he isn’t looking at them. He has a strong personality and positive outlook on life, and accepts his hearing loss as a consequence of his early noise exposure. Although he recognizes that as he ages it may worsen, his attitude is “I’ll deal with it when the time comes.” He does not intend to let hearing loss separate him from the people he loves.
Patient is male, late 90s, and gradually lost 95% of his hearing through no discernible cause. Hearing aids help, but only a little. This elderly gentleman has always been interested in everything around him, and sees no reason to stop being interested now. When his great-grandchildren are doing something that looks intriguing to him, he comes and sits down where he can see their faces. He asks questions, pays close attention to their answers, reads their lips, and asks them to repeat something if he doesn’t understand. Although he hates being almost deaf, he doesn’t allow it to rule his life, and his family considers him a joy to be around.
Patient is female, early 90s, and gradually lost 95% of her hearing through no discernible cause; she also has lost much of her vision. Hearing aids help, but only a little. This patient was self reliant as a younger woman, but always has been selfish and self-centered. These traits have worsened as she has aged. Now she is deeply depressed, and the only conversations she has with family members are about how awful it is to get old and how terrible it is to lose your sight and hearing. Although her family loves her and family members are sorry for her losses, they no longer want to spend time with her. This increases her sense of isolation, her depression and her level of complaining, which in turn drives her family members farther from her. This is a good example of how devastating hearing loss can be to an individual and a family.
Patient is female, mid 50s, with a moderate history of noise exposure as a young girl. Four years ago she experienced sudden onset hyperacusis (extreme noise sensitivity) and high-pitched tinnitus, accompanied by hearing loss. Mild hyperacusis, tinnitus, and hearing loss have persisted but are stable. For the first year, the patient suffered from a high level of anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, and panic attacks. After finally being diagnosed with endolymphatic hydrops—a pathologic condition present in Meniere’s Disease—the patient’s panic attacks, anxiety and depression subsided and she began sleeping regularly again. Over time she has learned to manage the tinnitus through diet and medication. Like Patient #1, she has a strong personality (family members call her “stubborn”), has accepted her condition and learned to live with it, and is determined not to let it run her life.
All of that said, there’s no doubt that hearing loss tends to isolate sufferers and separate them from their friends and family. Although today’s hearing aids can do much to restore those connections, the best solution to the problem still is to prevent hearing loss from taking place whenever possible.