Hearing Loss :: Dim view of aging linked to hearing loss

Older adults who harbor negative stereotypes about aging may have a more rapid decline in their hearing, a new study suggests.

Researchers at Yale University found that among older men and women, between 70 and 96 years old, those who held to the stereotypes of older adults as “frail” and “senile” showed a greater decline in hearing over the next three years.

The link was independent of a number of factors in hearing loss, including age, physical health and depression. The effect was seen even in study participants who had “perfect scores” on hearing tests at the study’s start, lead study author Becca R. Levy told Reuters Health.

This suggests that age stereotypes themselves may affect older adults’ sensory perception, she and her colleagues report in the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences.

There are several ways in which stereotypes could influence older adults’ hearing, Levy explained, one of which involves the effects of stress. “In other studies, we have found that negative age stereotypes can generate stress,” she said. “It has also been found that certain aspects of stress can affect hearing.”

Another possibility is that because people with dim views on aging may expect to physically deteriorate, these expectations sometimes become “self-fulfilling prophecies.” Older adults who believe hearing loss is inevitable, Levy explained, may not seek medical help when they begin to notice changes in their hearing.

The findings are based on data collected from 546 men and women who had their hearing screened at the start of the study and again three years later. To gauge whether participants had negative stereotypes of aging, the researchers asked them to name five phrases that came to mind when they thought of an older person.

Terms like “compassionate” and “always dresses well” were considered positive, while responses such as “stooped over” and “feeble” were judged to be negative stereotypes.

Overall, study participants who harbored more negative views were more likely to show hearing decline during the follow-up period.

Levy and her colleagues point to past studies that have found lower rates of age-related hearing loss in cultures that place less stigma on getting older. Research has found, for example, that older residents of Easter Island, where the elderly are seen in a positive light, have less hearing loss than older adults who’d left the island for industrialized nations.

Though those findings were assumed to be reflective of noise pollution in industrialized societies, it’s also possible that the more pessimistic views of aging in these cultures play a role, according to the Yale researchers.

Questioning such negative attitudes, and looking at older adults who are positive role models, Levy said, may help people avoid “taking in” the negative age stereotypes that surround them.

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