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

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

There are a variety of reasons why people may not get treatment for hearing loss, particularly as they grow older. (One study found that just 28% of people even had their hearing checked, even though they said they suffered from loss of hearing, and most didn’t look for further treatment. For some people, it’s the same as getting grey hair or wrinkles, a normal part of growing old. It’s been possible to diagnose loss of hearing for some time, but now, thanks to technological developments, we can also manage it. Significantly, more than only your hearing can be helped by managing loss of hearing, according to an increasing body of research.

A recent study from a research team based at Columbia University, adds to the body of knowledge linking hearing loss and depression.
They examine each person for depression and give them an audiometric hearing test. After a range of factors are considered, the researchers discovered that the odds of having clinically substantial signs or symptoms of depression increased by about 45% for every 20-decibel increase in loss of hearing. And for the record, 20 dB is very little noise. It’s about as loud as leaves rustling and is quieter than a whisper.

It’s amazing that such a tiny change in hearing generates such a large increase in the odds of experiencing depression, but the basic connection isn’t shocking. This new research adds to the considerable established literature linking hearing loss and depression, like this multi-year analysis from 2000 which found that loss of hearing got worse in relation to a worsening of mental health, or this research from 2014 that revealed that both individuals who reported having difficulty hearing and who were found to suffer from loss of hearing based on hearing tests had a significantly higher risk of depression.

Here’s the plus side: the connection that researchers suspect is present between hearing loss and depression isn’t biological or chemical, it’s social. Regular interactions and social situations are often avoided due to anxiety over difficulty hearing. This can increase social alienation, which further feeds into feelings of depression and anxiety. It’s a pattern that is very easily broken despite the fact that it’s a vicious one.

The symptoms of depression can be relieved by treating loss of hearing with hearing aids according to several studies. 2014 research evaluated statistics from over 1,000 people in their 70s finding that those who used hearing aids were significantly less more likely to have symptoms of depression, though the writers did not determine a cause-and-effect relationship since they were not looking at statistics over time.

Nevertheless, the concept that managing loss of hearing with hearing aids can ease the symptoms of depression is born out by other studies that evaluated individuals before and after getting hearing aids. Although only a small group of people was looked at in this 2011 research, 34 individuals total, after only three months with hearing aids, according to the studies, they all displayed considerable improvement in both depressive symptoms and cognitive functioning. The exact same outcome was discovered from even further out by another minor study from 2012, with every single person in the sample continuing to experience less depression six months after beginning to wear hearing aids. Large groupings of U.S. veterans who were suffering from loss of hearing were evaluated in a 1992 study that discovered that a full 12 months after starting to wear hearing aids, the vets were still suffering from fewer symptoms of depression.

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