Experts agree: Well-hearing is linked to well-being

Highlights from the first-ever international conference focusing on the scientific connection between hearing well and being well.

It is no surprise that overall wellness and well-being have taken a front seat in the hearing healthcare industry. From balance to cognition, hearing healthcare professionals (HCPs) are looking for more information supporting the relationship between hearing loss and overall well-being – as well as what it means for patients when they finally start to wear hearing aids.

For more than 70 years, Phonak has reconnected people with hearing loss to their world around them – making them an active part of life once again. It was therefore no surprise when Phonak introduced its “Hearing Well and being well – A strong scientific connection” conference.

This first-ever international conference held in Frankfurt, Germany in November 2019 brought together researchers and experts from all areas of well-being including cognition, social and emotional aspects of hearing and aural rehabilitation for adults. It also brought together over 300 HCPs from more than 20 countries. Representing the United States among other HCPS, it was my pleasure to attend this conference and return to the US to share the knowledge, learnings and key takeaways that are guaranteed to make us all think about the patients we serve and the services we provide.

Seeing the Invisible Gorilla

Dr. Sophia Kramer opened up the first day’s session with perhaps an obvious call to action, but one that tricked many of us in the room – the Invisible Gorilla experiment. Quite often we focus on the minutia of hearing loss – the cause, the development, the trajectory and impact on quality of life.

BUT – do we take the time to step back and look at the bigger picture? When we focus on one aspect of the hearing loss or rehabilitation and we fail to look at the larger, more holistic picture of what’s going on in that patient’s life – socially, emotionally, physically – are we missing aspects of rehabilitation that could positively impact patient outcomes and therefore quality of life?

It is easy to focus on only one or two individual aspects of treatment, but the truth of the matter is that when we focus too tightly, we neglect the ‘whole perspective’ of the patient. Truth be told – this might not be an easy behavior to change, but an important one to actively work towards.

You’re only as strong as those who support you

It is no surprise to many of us that when someone has a hearing loss, they often say that they “ longer go out to dinner, to the movies, with friends…” because it’s often too hard and fatiguing to follow the conversation and feel a part of the group. Perhaps, at some point in time, this reflection has become an ’acceptable’ behavior and a key statement or event that we often expect as HCPs when our patients come to us asking for help. But is this acceptable?

Recent evidence and ongoing research are continuing to demonstrate the impact of hearing loss on individuals and the social isolation that often follows. Dr. Barbara Weinstein and Dr. Louise Hickson both highlighted the impact of the social isolation that is often experienced by those with hearing loss.

“Social connectedness is the #1 predictor of longevity and mortality and social connectedness is directly related to hearing – Dr. Barbara Weinstein

The most important aspect of social isolation is the fact that it is a modifiable risk factor that we can address in our clinical practice. Knowing this key fact alone should drive us to change the questions we ask our patients when they tell us they are no longer attending social events or reaching out to friends due to their hearing loss.

But does it just stop with getting our patients back to their social activities and groups? Does the quality of the groups make a difference? How about the number of groups you’re a part of?

“If you increase the number of groups you’re a part of, your risk of death goes down – and vice versa. Also, the number of groups you are a part of help protect your ‘cognitive age’ as we all physically age as well” – Dr. Louise Hickson

The undeniable impact of social activity, basic human interaction and hearing loss are clear. More importantly, the key takeaway that many of us took home with us is that this risk factor is modifiable – and that places not only an importance on this area for us as we see our patients, but also a responsibility to be aware of and active in discussing this with both our patients and their families.

Fatigue saves us from a lot of bad things

Our brains are amazing things – but we also ask them to do quite a lot of tasks, often all at once. When we do this, the more we demand of our cognitive and neurological functions, the more tired we find ourselves during an activity or at the end of a long day. But is this a safety feature?

Listening effort, auditory fatigue and hearing loss is an area of research that continues to grow. Currently, it is also a very hot topic in regards to the relief that hearing aid technology can provide to those with hearing loss, especially in challenging listening environments. Often we think of listening fatigue as the outcome of increased background noise and decreased signal to noise (SNR) – making the environments very demanding even for those with normal hearing.

Dr. Graham Naylor spoke about hearing loss and fatigue – and provided insights and perspectives into the topic that we don’t always focus on: protection! We all experience fatigue of varying types (i.e. transient vs persistent fatigue) but it’s how we deal and work through them that defines the outcomes we experience. Fatigue is a protective mechanism to keep us moving – or force us to make a decision to stop or to continue to exhaustion. For many of us, when fatigue hits it’s either 1) easy to continue and ignore or 2) stops us dead in our tracks. We make a conscious decision to either stop or keep going.

What’s unique and quite interesting is how some individuals can overcome the onset of fatigue and continue to ‘push through’ a fatiguing event and/or circumstance based merely on motivation. The motivation of an individual can be enough for them to overcome a fatiguing event – like increasing noise in a challenging listening environment – so that they don’t have to leave an environment or event they’re participating in.

But there is a consequence to pushing through your fatigue – especially the more often you do so. If you don’t take the time to recover and rest – you’re susceptible to fatigue in a shorter amount of time the next time that challenging environment comes around. If we think about our patients in those challenging environments (and the fatigue they regularly push through at work, at home, etc.), they’re not recovering for the time needed for their body to relax and reboot.

Does this change the conversation around listening fatigue and just what it means? Do we have an opportunity to now talk to our patients regarding the pros and cons of listening fatigue – and how they should be actively recovering and giving their ears a rest – even with hearing aid technology helping them out? It’s a new way to look at the active counseling needed to address listening fatigue and just what it means for the outcomes and quality of life of our patients and their families.

The strong scientific connection between hearing well and being well

There is no doubt – hearing well is being well. The connection between hearing loss and well being is clear. However, there are also areas that we as HCPs have not taken into consideration and now have a wide open array of professionals, experts, and unlimited amounts of research to enlighten us. While that may be intimidating to some, the promise of finding relationships that demonstrate the causal factors underlying cognitive, physical, social and emotional outcomes is both promising and exciting!

Today, in hearing healthcare, we are on the edge of a paradigm shift in understanding the broader aspects of well-being that might very well change the services we provide and the fellow professional colleagues we work with across the healthcare industry. This is an exciting time!

I am proud that Phonak is leading the way in bringing together the scientific connections, research and experts necessary to better understand the future of our industry as well as the quality of life and outcomes for our patients.

The presentations and videos from the conference are now available on