Did you know that age-related hearing impairment affects approximately one out of three individuals between the ages of 65 and 74 (and about half of those are over 75)? But even though so many people are affected by hearing loss, 70% of them have never used hearing aids and for those under the age of 69, that number drops to 16%. Depending on whose numbers you look at, there are at least 20 million people suffering from untreated hearing loss, though some estimates put this closer to 30 million.
As people get older, there may be numerous reasons why they would avoid getting help for their hearing loss. Only 28% of people who confirmed some degree of hearing loss actually got tested or looked into further treatment, according to one study. Many individuals just accept hearing loss as a standard part of getting older. Treating hearing loss has always been more of a problem than diagnosing it, but with developments in modern hearing aid technology, that’s not the case anymore. This is significant because your ability to hear isn’t the only health hazard linked to hearing loss.
A study from a research group based out of Columbia University adds to the documentation relating hearing loss and depression. They gathered data from over 5,000 adults aged 50 and older, giving each subject an audiometric hearing test and also assessing them for signs of depression. After correcting for a range of variables, the researchers found that the odds of suffering with 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.
It’s surprising that such a small difference in hearing creates such a significant increase in the odds of suffering from depression, but the basic relationship isn’t a shock. This new study adds to the substantial existing literature connecting hearing loss and depression, like this multi-year analysis from 2000, which revealed that mental health got worse along with hearing loss. In another study, a considerably 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 link that researchers suspect exists between hearing loss and depression isn’t biological or chemical. In all likelihood, it’s social. Trouble hearing can lead to feelings of stress and anxiety and lead sufferers to stay away from social interaction or even everyday conversations. This can increase social separation, which further feeds into feelings of anxiety and depression. But this vicious cycle can be broken rather easily.
Treating hearing loss, in most cases with hearing aids, according to multiple studies, will lessen symptoms of depression. A 2014 study that looked at data from over 1,000 people in their 70s found that those who used hearing aids were considerably less likely to suffer from symptoms of depression, though the authors did not define a cause-and-effect relationship since they were not looking at data over time.
But other research, which observed subjects before and after wearing hearing aids, bears out the hypothesis that treating hearing loss can help reduce symptoms of depression. A 2011 study only looked at a small group of people, 34 subjects altogether, the researchers found that after three months with hearing aids, every one of them demonstrated substantial improvement in both depressive symptoms and cognitive functioning. Another small-scale study from 2012 revealed the same results even further out, with every single person in the sample continuing to experience less depression six months after beginning to use hearing aids. And in a study from 1992 that looked at a bigger 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 less symptoms of depression.
It’s difficult struggling with hearing loss but help is out there. Get your hearing checked, and learn about your options. It could benefit more than your hearing, it could positively impact your quality of life in ways you hadn’t even imagined.