Did you know that age-related hearing impairment affects about one in three individuals between the ages of 65 and 74 (and roughly half of them are over 75)? But even though so many people are impacted by hearing loss, 70% of them have never used hearing aids and for those under 69, that number drops to 16%. At least 20 million people cope with neglected hearing loss and some reports put this number at over 30 million.
There are numerous reasons why people might not get treatment for hearing loss, especially as they grow older. Only 28% of people who reported some amount of hearing loss actually got tested or looked into further treatment, according to one study. For some people, it’s like gray hair or wrinkles, just a part of aging. Hearing loss has long been easy to diagnose, but thanks to the considerable advancements that have been made in hearing aid technology, it’s also a very treatable condition. That’s relevant because an increasing body of research demonstrates that treating hearing loss can help more than your hearing.
A study from a research group based at Columbia University adds to the literature connecting hearing loss and depression. They collected data from over 5,000 people aged 50 and up, giving each subject an audiometric hearing exam and also assessing them for symptoms of depression. For every 20 decibels of increased hearing loss, the odds of having significant depression rose by 45% according to these researchers after they adjusted for a range of variables. And for the record, 20 dB is very little noise, it’s lower than a whisper, approximately equal to the sound of rustling leaves.
The basic link between hearing loss and depression isn’t that surprising, but what is shocking is how small a difference can so significantly increase the likelihood of suffering from depression. This new study contributes to the substantial existing literature linking hearing loss and depression, like this multi-year analysis from 2000, which found that mental health got worse along with hearing loss. In another study, a significantly higher danger of depression was reported in people who both self reported hearing loss and individuals whose hearing loss was diagnosed from a hearing test.
Here’s the good news: The relationship that researchers surmise exists between hearing loss and depression isn’t chemical or biological. It’s probably social. Difficulty hearing can cause feelings of anxiety and lead sufferers to stay away from social situations or even everyday conversations. This can increase social isolation, which further leads to even more feelings of anxiety and depression. It’s a vicious cycle, but it’s also one that’s easily broken.
Treating hearing loss, usually with hearing aids, according to multiple studies, will decrease symptoms of depression. A 2014 study that looked at data from more than 1,000 individuals in their 70s discovered that those who wore hearing aids were considerably less likely to suffer from symptoms of depression, though the authors did not identify a cause-and-effect relationship since they weren’t looking at data over time.
But other research, which followed subjects before and after wearing hearing aids, reinforces the theory that treating hearing loss can help alleviate symptoms of depression. A 2011 study only observed a small group of people, 34 subjects total, the researchers discovered that after three months with hearing aids, every one of them demonstrated substantial improvement in both depressive symptoms and mental functioning. And those results are long lasting as reported by a small-scale study conducted in 2012 which showed continuing relief in depression symptoms for every single subject who used hearing aids as much as 6 months out. And in a study from 1992 that looked at a larger group of U.S. military veterans coping with hearing loss, discovered that a full 12 months after beginning to use hearing aids, the vets were still noticing fewer depression symptoms.
It’s difficult dealing with hearing loss but help is out there. Get your hearing tested, and learn about your solutions. Your hearing will be improved and so will your overall quality of life.