Are you aware that around one in three people between the ages of 65 and 74 is affected by hearing loss and half of them are older than 75? But despite its prevalence, only about 30% of people who have hearing loss have ever used hearing aids (and that number goes down to 16% for people younger than 69! Depending on which numbers you look at, there are at least 20 million people dealing with neglected hearing loss, though some estimates put this closer to 30 million.
There are a variety of reasons why people might not seek treatment for hearing loss, particularly as they grow older. One study determined that only 28% of people who said they suffered from hearing loss had even had their hearing examined, let alone sought further treatment. Many individuals just accept hearing loss as a standard part of getting older. Hearing loss has long been easy to diagnose, but thanks to the substantial improvements that have been made in hearing aid technology, it’s also a very treatable condition. That’s important because an increasing body of research shows that treating hearing loss can improve more than just your hearing.
A Columbia University research group conducted a study that connected hearing loss to depression. They collected data from over 5,000 people aged 50 and up, giving each subject an audiometric hearing test and also evaluating them for signs of depression. After adjusting for a host of variables, the researchers found that the odds of having clinically significant symptoms of depression increased by about 45% for every 20-decibel increase in hearing loss. And for the record, 20 dB is very little noise, it’s quieter 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 dramatically increase the likelihood of suffering from depression. This new study expands the substantial existing literature linking hearing loss and depression, like this multi-year investigation from 2000, which found that mental health worsened along with hearing loss. Another study from 2014 that revealed both people who self-reported problems hearing and who were found to have hearing loss based on hearing tests, had a significantly higher danger of depression.
Here’s the good news: The link that researchers surmise exists between hearing loss and depression isn’t biological or chemical. It’s most likely social. People with hearing loss will frequently steer clear of social situations because of anxiety and will even sometimes feel anxious about normal everyday situations. This can increase social isolation, which further feeds into feelings of anxiety and depression. But this vicious cycle can be broken fairly easily.
Treating hearing loss, usually with hearing aids, according to numerous studies, will reduce symptoms of depression. 1,000 individuals in their 70’s were studied in a 2014 study which couldn’t define a cause and effect relationship between hearing loss and depression because it didn’t look over time, but it did show that those individuals were much more likely to suffer from depression symptoms if they had untreated hearing loss.
But other research, which followed subjects before and after getting hearing aids, reinforces the hypothesis that treating hearing loss can help relieve symptoms of depression. A 2011 study only looked at a small group of people, 34 subjects total, the researchers discovered that after three months with hearing aids, every one of them demonstrated significant 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 demonstrated 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 observed a larger group of U.S. military veterans suffering from hearing loss, found that a full 12 months after beginning to use hearing aids, the vets were still noticing fewer depression symptoms.
Hearing loss is hard, but you don’t have to deal with it by yourself. Get your hearing examined, and know about your solutions. It could benefit more than your hearing, it might positively affect your quality of life in ways you hadn’t even envisioned.