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 65 and 74 (and roughly half of those are over 75)? But in spite of its prevalence, only about 30% of older Americans who suffer from loss of hearing have ever had hearing aids (and that figure drops to 16% for those under the age of 69!). At least 20 million Americans are afflicted by neglected loss of hearing depending on what data you look at; though some estimates put this closer to 30 million.

As people get older, they neglect seeking treatment for loss of hearing for a number of considerations. (One study found that just 28% of people who reported that they suffered from loss of hearing had even gotten their hearing tested, and most did not look for additional treatment. It’s simply part of growing old, for some individuals, like wrinkles or grey hair. Loss of hearing has long been easy to diagnose, but due to the substantial advancements that have been accomplished in the technology of hearing aids, it’s also a very manageable condition. That’s important because a growing body of research demonstrates that treating hearing loss can help more than just your hearing.

A recent study from a Columbia research group links hearing loss and depression adding to the body of knowledge.
They evaluate each subject for depression and administer an audiometric hearing exam. After a number of factors are considered, the analysts found that the odds of showing clinically substantial signs or symptoms of depression climbed by around 45% for every 20-decibel increase in loss of hearing. And to be clear, 20 dB is very little noise. It’s about as loud as rustling leaves and is quieter than a whisper.

The general link isn’t astonishing but it is striking how rapidly the odds of being affected by depression increase with only a small difference in sound. This new research adds to the substantial existing 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 study from 2014 that people had a considerably higher risk of depression when they were either clinically diagnosed with hearing loss or self reported it.

The plus side is: it isn’t a chemical or biological connection that researchers think exists between depression and hearing loss, it’s social. Everyday interactions and social situations are often avoided due to anxiety over problems hearing. Social isolation can be the result, which further feeds into feelings of depression and anxiety. It’s a cycle that is easily broken even though it’s a vicious one.

A wide variety of studies have found that treating hearing loss, most often with hearing aids, can help to reduce symptoms of depression. Over 1,000 people in their 70s were evaluated in a 2014 study that revealing that individuals who used hearing aids were significantly less more likely to experience symptoms of depression, though the authors did not define a cause-and-effect relationship since they were not observing data over time.

But other studies which followed people before and after getting hearing aids bears out the theory that managing loss of hearing can assist in alleviating symptoms of depression. Although only a small group of people was looked at in this 2011 study, a total of 34, after just three months using hearing aids, according to the studies, all of them showed considerable improvement in both depressive symptoms and cognitive functioning. Another small-scale study from 2012 uncovered the same results even further out, with every single person in the small sample continuing to experience less depression six months after starting to wear hearing aids. And in a study from 1992 that looked at a larger group of U.S. military veterans suffering from loss of hearing discovered that a full 12 months after starting to use hearing aids, fewer symptoms of depression were experienced by the vets.

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