We’ve known for a while that hearing loss can increase the risk of depression and concentration and memory issues, and possibly even dementia.

Now, mounting research, including a recent U.K. review of studies, suggests that hearing problems can take a significant toll on relationships with spouses, children, friends, and even co-workers—and that it may lead to loneliness and a lack of social interaction for both people in a couple.

“Hearing loss is a family issue, not just an individual one,” explains Catherine Palmer, P.h.D., director of audiology and hearing aids at the University of Pittsburgh, who was not involved in the U.K. research. “It’s long been understood that a person with hearing loss may start to withdraw from social situations, but there’s been less focus on the effects on their partners—the social isolation as well as the burden of being a loved ones ‘ears.’”

Here’s what to know about this research and how to curb hearing-loss-related social problems.

What the Research Shows

The recent research, conducted at the University of Nottingham in the U.K. and published in the journal Trends in Hearing, looked at more than 70 previous studies on the complaints made both by people with hearing loss and those closest to them.

“We found that hearing loss impacted people’s social relationships in all facets of their life,” explains lead study author and audiologist Venessa Vas, P.h.D. “Oftentimes, both parties became depressed and socially withdrawn.”

More on hearing loss

Spouses, in particular, reported feeling anxious and stressed about their partners’ hearing loss. “The whole process is draining for them, as they often have to serve as another set of ears, answering the phone and translating conversations,” Vas explains.

The emotional issues and deterioration of social relationships may go unnoticed for a while because they usually intensify gradually, says James Denneny, M.D., CEO of the American Academy of Otolaryngology.

“First people start showing a little bit of anxiety or depression because they find they have to watch someone’s mouth when they talk, or not watch TV when they’re having a conversation,” he says. “Then, as social interactions become more and more frustrating, they stop playing golf, they stop going out to dinner, they stop playing cards with friends because they are the only one who can’t hear the jokes at the table.”

Eventually, Denneny notes, “Both partners start to feel resentful of one another, and lonely, which leads to even more depression, and then more health risks from social isolation.”

Knowing When There's a Problem

It can be difficult to determine when hearing is faltering—particularly if it’s gradual—and some are reluctant to admit there’s a problem. “There’s a lot of stigma involved, particularly among men, who see it as admitting that they’re not what they used to be, that they’re getting older,” Denneny says.

Though current guidelines recommend a hearing test every three years after age 65, have one done earlier if you notice any of the following in yourself or a loved one:

  • Conversations sound muffled, almost as if you’re underwater.
  • It’s hard to decipher consonant sounds. “Vowel sounds are made at lower frequencies, which are easier to hear,” Denneny says.
  • Hearing in settings with background noise, such as restaurants, is difficult.
  • You are constantly asking people to speak more slowly or repeat themselves.
  • You turn the TV up so loudly that others complain. 

Tools to Help Hearing

If you suspect hearing trouble or you or a loved one is found to have hearing loss, depending on the cause and degree, hearing aids might be appropriate. (See Consumer Reports’ hearing aids buying guide here for an in-depth look at these prescription products.)

For some people, a more modest tool might be sufficient, our experts say. If you only have trouble hearing someone on the other end of a phone line, for instance, using an amplified or captioned phone may be enough, Denneny points out.

“If an individual is primarily at home watching television and communicating with one or two family members, a simple device like an inexpensive amplifier with a headset or earbuds may be all they need, along with some appropriate communication strategies,” Palmer says. (See Consumer Reports’ advice on tools and tips that can improve TV watching for those with hearing loss.)

Some people with mild to moderate hearing loss might be helped by an over-the-counter device called a personal sound amplification product, or PSAP, according to a study published in July in the Journal of the American Medical Association. (See what our testing on these devices found.)

However, some companies allow their PSAPs to magnify sound above 80 decibels, which may be harmful, Denneny says. If you do use a PSAP, make sure it’s set below that level.

You can expect to see more options develop over the next few years because a new law was passed in August that calls for the creation of a new class of OTC hearing aids. “This will most likely make hearing aids more affordable, and more consumers will be willing to use them,” Denneny says.

Tips for Communicating More Clearly

Several simple strategies can enhance communication between those with hearing loss and others, Palmer says. These include:

  • Facing someone as you talk to them, so you can hear them more clearly and possibly even read their lips.
  • Making sure you have good lighting, so you can see the other person’s face, and asking them to talk slowly and distinctly.
  • Creating an environment to help hearing. For instance, during a conversation, turn off extraneous sound sources, such as a TV or running water. Changing old habits that can interfere with hearing, such as calling to a spouse from another room, is also important.