Do we ever reach an age where our personality remains set in stone, regardless of outside influences?
A new study from the University of Gothenburg says no. In fact, hearing lossóa common condition that plagues nearly half of elderly Americansócan actually have a big impact on an aging adult’s personality.
“To our knowledge, this is the first time a link between hearing and personality changes has been established,” says psychologist Anne Ingeborg Berg, PhD, a researcher at the University of Gothenburg, Department of Psychology.
For six years, researchers tracked the physical and mental health of 400 seniors in their 80s and 90s. They also documented changes in key personality characteristics, including extroversion. According to Ingeborg Berg, the team was surprised to find that, out of the broad range of possible influencing factors (e.g. cognitive impairment, how many chronic diseases an aging adult was dealing with, vision and hearing loss, ability to perform activities of daily living, self-rated health measures), only hearing loss appeared to have a significant impact on how outgoing an elderly individual was.
How hearing impairment influences personality
A host of factors undoubtedly come into play when determining a person’s demeanor, but the aches and pains of aging don’t appear to affect a senior’s demeanor as much as their ability to hear.
It all comes down to the deeply-ingrained human desire to connect with other people on a deeper level. Effective communication is required for these bonds to form, but older adults who are hard of hearing won’t be able to communicate as well. “Hearing loss directly affects the quality of social situations,” Ingeborg Berg points out. “If the perceived quality of social interaction goes down, it may eventually affect whether and how we relate to others.”
When a person can’t communicate effectively, they tend to lose self-esteem and avoid social interactions. Even the previously extroverted may eventually withdraw into themselves, increasing their isolation and the potential for loneliness.
The very real dangers of loneliness in the elderly
Isolation is an endemic issue in the elderly populationó43 percent of seniors feel lonely on a regular basis, according to a recent survey by the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).
Much like a physical disease, loneliness can be both contagious and deadly.
Older adults who feel lonely are more prone to behave in ways that may cause other people to not want to be around them. Psychologists from the University of Chicago who analyzed data from the Farmingham Heart Study, a long-term, ongoing cardiovascular study, found that solitary seniors have a tendency to further isolate themselves by pushing people away and not making efforts to engage with others.
Lonely seniors are also more likely to decline and die faster. The aforementioned UCSF study found that people 60-years-old and older who reported feeling lonely saw a 45 percent increase in their risk for death. Isolated elders had a 59 percent greater risk of mental and physical decline than their more social counterparts.
Ingeborg Berg feels her team’s findings highlight the importance of making sure hearing issues in aging adults are identified and addressed earlier, so that they can stay socially connected to those around them. “It is hypothesized that an outgoing personality reflects a positive approach to life, but it also probably shows how important it is for most people to share both joy and sadness with others.”
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