Man isolated and depressed in a cafe because he has hearing loss.

Did you know that age-related hearing loss impacts roughly one in three U.S. adults between the ages of 65 and 74 (and around half of those over 75)? But despite its prevalence, only about 30% of older Americans who have loss of hearing have ever used hearing aids (and for those below the age of 60, the number falls to 16%!). Depending on whose figures you look at, there are at least 20 million Americans suffering from untreated hearing loss; though some estimates put this closer to 30 million.

There are a number of justifications for why people may not get treatment for loss of hearing, especially as they grow older. (One study found that only 28% of people even had their hearing examined, though they reported suffering from hearing loss, let alone sought additional treatment. For some folks, it’s just like grey hair or wrinkles, just part of growing old. It’s been possible to diagnose loss of hearing for a long time, but currently, due to technological improvements, we can also deal with it. That’s significant because an increasing body of research reveals that treating hearing loss can help more than just your hearing.

A recent study from a Columbia research group connects hearing loss and depression adding to the body of literature.
They give each subject an audiometric hearing exam and also examine them for symptoms of depression. After a number of variables are considered, the analysts found that the odds of showing clinically substantial signs of depression increased by about 45% for every 20-decibel increase in hearing loss. And to be clear, 20 dB is very little noise. It’s about the same as rustling leaves and is quieter than a whisper.

It’s amazing that such a tiny change in hearing yields such a significant boost in the odds of being affected by depression, but the basic connection isn’t shocking. There is a large collection of literature on depression and hearing loss and this new study adds to that research, like this multi-year analysis from 2000 which found that hearing loss got worse in relation to a worsening of mental health, or this research from 2014 that found that both people who self-reported difficulty hearing and who were found to suffer from loss of hearing based on hearing tests had a considerably higher chance of depression.

Here’s the good news: it isn’t a chemical or biological connection that researchers surmise exists between depression and hearing loss, it’s social. Everyday interactions and social situations are often avoided due to anxiety over problems hearing. Social alienation can be the result, which further feeds into feelings of depression and anxiety. It’s a horrible cycle, but it’s also one that’s quickly disrupted.

The symptoms of depression can be relieved by treating hearing loss with hearing aids according to several studies. 2014 research investigated data from over 1,000 people in their 70s finding that people who used hearing aids were significantly less likely to have symptoms of depression, but because the authors didn’t considered the data over time, they couldn’t pinpoint a cause and effect relationship.

But other research that’s followed subjects before and after getting hearing aids re-affirms the theory that treating hearing loss can assist in alleviating symptoms of depression. Although this 2011 study only investigated a small cluster of individuals, 34 subjects total, the analysts discovered that after only three months with hearing aids, they all revealed significant improvement in both depressive symptoms and cognitive functioning. Another minor study from 2012 uncovered the exact same results even further out, with every single person six months out from starting to wear hearing aids, were still experiencing less depression. And in a study from 1992 that looked at a larger group of U.S. military veterans suffering from hearing loss found that a full 12 months after starting to wear hearing aids, the vets were still experiencing fewer symptoms of depression.

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