People with hearing difficulties experienced heightened depression, loneliness and memory problems during the COVID-19 lockdown, according to an online survey of the over 70s.
Cancelled medical appointments, face masks and trouble with phone and video calls are all important factors, suggests the study published in the International Journal of Audiology.
The UK’s 8.3 million over 70s with hearing loss are likely to be selectively disadvantaged by the coronavirus pandemic say the team.
"The impact of social isolation has been massive on the elderly population,” said Brunel University London clinical neuropsychologist Prof Annalena Venneri.
“But our survey shows that people with hearing impairment have been more substantially affected. This prolonged isolation, social distancing and use of face masks especially affect the means these people rely on for social interaction and people feel left behind and a bit marginalised.
“Our survey shows that the pandemic is having a substantial impact on mental health and cognitive abilities of this vulnerable group," added Prof Venneri who worked on the study while at University of Sheffield.
Eighty people over seventy with mixed hearing abilities completed two questionnaires, 12 weeks apart during May and June 2020 when lockdown restrictions were in force.
In that time, many routine face-to-face audiology appointments were postponed, suspended, or offered remotely. And face masks, which are a direct communication barrier, are a particular problem for people who also rely on lip reading and facial expression, the study notes.
“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,” said Dr Jenna Littlejohn from The University of Manchester. “Video calls have been lifelines for many.”
Dr Littlejohn said: “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 more data we have, the better we can inform the health and social care professionals who are responsible for them.”