Are you aware that about one out of three people between the ages of 65 and 74 is impacted by hearing loss and half of them are older than 75? But despite its prevalence, only around 30% of those who have hearing loss have ever used hearing aids (and that number goes down to 16% for those younger than 69! Depending on which numbers you look at, there are at least 20 million individuals suffering from untreated hearing loss, 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 get older. Only 28% of people who reported some degree of hearing loss actually got tested or looked into further treatment, according to one study. For some people, it’s like wrinkles or gray hair, just a part of growing old. Hearing loss has always been easy to diagnose, but thanks to the substantial improvements that have been made in hearing aid technology, it’s also a highly manageable condition. That’s relevant because a growing body of research shows that managing hearing loss can improve more than just your hearing.
A Columbia University research group conducted a study that linked hearing loss to depression. An audiometric hearing exam and a depression assessment were given to the over 5,000 individuals that they gathered data from. For every 20 decibels of increased hearing loss, the chances of dealing with significant depression rose by 45% according to these researchers after they took into account a range of variables. And 20 decibels isn’t very loud, it’s around the volume of rustling leaves, for the record.
It’s surprising that such a small difference in hearing produces such a large increase in the odds of suffering from depression, but the basic relationship isn’t a shock. The fact that mental health gets worse as hearing loss gets worse is revealed by this research and a multi-year analysis from 2000, expanding a considerable body of literature linking the two. Another study from 2014 that found both individuals who self-reported difficulty hearing and who were found to have hearing loss according to hearing tests, had a substantially higher risk of depression.
The good news: The connection that researchers suspect exists between hearing loss and depression isn’t chemical or biological. In all likelihood, it’s social. People with hearing loss will frequently avoid social interaction due to anxiety and will even often feel anxious about standard day-to-day situations. This can increase social separation, which further feeds into feelings of anxiety and depression. It’s a vicious cycle, but it’s also one that’s easily broken.
Treating hearing loss, in most cases with hearing aids, according to multiple studies, will decrease symptoms of depression. A 2014 study that looked at data from over 1,000 individuals 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 identify a cause-and-effect relationship since they weren’t looking at data over time.
But other research, which followed subjects before and after using hearing aids, bears out the hypothesis that treating hearing loss can help reduce symptoms of depression. A 2011 study only observed a small group of people, 34 subjects total, the researchers found that after three months with hearing aids, every one of them demonstrated considerable improvement in both depressive symptoms and mental 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 wear hearing aids. And even a full 12 months after beginning to use hearing aids, a group of veterans in a 1992 study were still noticing relief from depression symptoms.
It’s tough struggling with hearing loss but help is out there. Find out what your options are by having your hearing tested. Your hearing will be improved and so will your overall quality of life.