People with hearing loss in Tucson have a higher risk of misusing prescription opioids and alcohol, particularly those under age 50 – further stressing the importance of early detection.
Substance Use Disorders & Hearing Impairment
A University of Michigan and VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System study, published this month in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found a strong correlation between hearing loss and substance use disorders.
Researchers gathered data from 86,186 people who responded to the group’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health and the results were eye-opening.
Adults under the age of 50 who experienced impaired hearing were more likely than their normal-hearing peers to suffer from a substance use disorder, even when other social, economic and mental health differences were taken into account:
- The youngest adults (those under the age of 35) were most likely to have a prescription opioid disorder; their risk was 2 ½ times greater.
- Adults with hearing loss aged 35-49 were twice as likely to have disorders related to both prescription opioids and alcohol.
- Adults over age 50 did not show higher rates of prescription opioid or alcohol use disorders.
The results don’t come as a complete surprise to lead researcher Michael McKee, M.D. He runs the Deaf Health Clinic, which provides primary care and mental health care to deaf and hearing-impaired patients of Michigan Medicine, U of M’s academic medical center.
Dr. McKee had noticed a disproportionately higher number of younger patients with hearing loss were being treated for substance use disorders and, already familiar with the detrimental physical and mental health effects of hearing loss, wondered if there might be a connection. The survey appears to substantiate his hunch.
“The marginalizing effects of hearing loss, such as social isolation, may be creating higher rates of substance use disorders,” McKee theorizes. He thinks part of the problem might be related to the physician-patient communication barriers that result from hearing loss.
When patients are in need of pain management, the simplest solution is often prescription opioids. A lack of awareness over the degree of hearing loss younger patients may be suffering is another possible factor.
Many health care professionals view hearing impairment as a condition that primarily affects older adults, but this simply isn’t true. Of those experiencing serious hearing loss or deafness who responded to the survey, 1.5 percent were younger than 35, 2.2 percent were 35-49 and 9.4 percent were over the age of 50.
A diagnosis of hearing loss doesn’t make a substance use disorder inevitable, but it is something for both doctors and patients to be aware of. Health care providers should approach patients of all ages equally and stop making assumptions about communication abilities, evaluating each person’s issues on a case-by-case basis.
If you or a loved one are experiencing signs of hearing loss, especially if you’re younger than 50, we recommend making an appointment with a Tucson audiologist as early as possible. Treating your hearing impairment now can prevent problems in the future.