Did you realize that age-related hearing loss affects roughly one in three U.S. adults between 65 and 74 (and around half of those are over 75)? But in spite of its prevalence, only about 30% of older Americans who have hearing loss have ever had hearing aids (and that number drops to 16% for those under 69!). At least 20 million Americans have untreated loss of hearing depending on what figures you look at; though some reports put this closer to 30 million.
There are a variety of reasons why people may not seek treatment for loss of hearing, especially as they grow older. (One study found that just 28% of people even had their hearing tested, even though they reported suffering from hearing loss, and the majority didn’t look for additional treatment. For some individuals, it’s like grey hair or wrinkles, just part of aging. Loss of hearing has long been easy to diagnose, but due to the substantial developments that have been accomplished in hearing aid technology, it’s also a very treatable situation. That’s important because an increasing body of research reveals that treating hearing loss can improve more than just your hearing.
A recent study from a Columbia research team links depression and loss of hearing adding to the body of knowledge.
They examine each person for depression and administer an audiometric hearing test. After a range of variables are considered, the researchers discovered that the odds of having clinically significant 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 quieter than a whisper, roughly on par with the sound of leaves rustling.
It’s amazing that such a small 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 mental health got worse alongside hearing loss, or this study from 2014 that found that both individuals who self-reported difficulty hearing and who were found to have loss of hearing based on hearing examinations had a considerably higher chance of depression.
Here’s the plus side: the connection that researchers surmise is present between hearing loss and depression isn’t biological or chemical, it’s social. Everyday interactions and social situations are generally avoided because of the anxiety over difficulty hearing. This can intensify social isolation, which further feeds into feelings of depression and anxiety. It’s a pattern that is easily broken despite the fact that it’s a vicious one.
The symptoms of depression can be alleviated by treating hearing loss with hearing aids according to a few studies. A 2014 study that investigated statistics from over 1,000 individuals in their 70s finding that individuals who used hearing aids were significantly less more likely to experience symptoms of depression, though the authors did not establish a cause-and-effect relationship since they weren’t focusing on data over time.
But other studies which followed people before and after getting hearing aids re-affirms the hypothesis that dealing with hearing loss can help alleviate symptoms of depression. Although only a small cross section of people was looked at in this 2011 research, 34 individuals total, after just three months with hearing aids, according to the research, all of them displayed significant improvement in both depressive symptoms and cognitive functioning. The same result was discovered from even further out by another small scale study from 2012, with every single individual six months out from beginning to use hearing aids, were still experiencing less depression. Large groupings of U.S. veterans who suffered from loss of hearing were evaluated in a 1992 study that discovered that a full 12 months after starting to use hearing aids, the vets were still experiencing fewer symptoms of depression.