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 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 individuals dealing with untreated hearing loss, though some estimates put this closer to 30 million.
There are a variety of reasons why people might not get treatment for hearing loss, particularly as they get older. One study found that only 28% of people who reported suffering from hearing loss had even had their hearing tested, let alone sought additional treatment. For some folks, it’s like gray hair or wrinkles, just a part of aging. Hearing loss has always been easy to diagnose, but thanks to the substantial developments that have been made in hearing aid technology, it’s also a very manageable condition. That’s relevant because a growing body of research indicates that treating hearing loss can improve more than just your hearing.
A Columbia University research group performed a study that connected hearing loss to depression. An audiometric hearing test and a depression screening were given to the over 5,000 people that they collected data from. After correcting for a range 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 20 decibels isn’t very loud, it’s around the volume of rustling leaves, for the record.
The basic connection between hearing loss and depression isn’t that surprising, but what is shocking is how small a difference can so drastically raise the probability of suffering from depression. This new study contributes to the sizable existing literature linking hearing loss and depression, like this multi-year investigation from 2000, which found that mental health worsened along with hearing loss. In another study, a significantly higher danger of depression was reported in people who both self reported hearing loss and people whose hearing loss was diagnosed from a hearing exam.
Here’s the good news: The link that researchers suspect exists between hearing loss and depression isn’t chemical or biological. More than likely, it’s social. People who have hearing loss will often avoid social situations because of anxiety and will even often feel anxious about typical everyday situations. This can increase social isolation, which further leads to even more feelings of depression and anxiety. But this vicious cycle can be broken rather easily.
Treating hearing loss, normally with hearing aids, according to numerous studies, will decrease symptoms of depression. A 2014 study that looked at data from more than 1,000 individuals in their 70s found that those who wore hearing aids were significantly less likely to suffer from symptoms of depression, though the authors did not determine a cause-and-effect relationship since they weren’t viewing the data over time.
But the hypothesis that treating hearing loss reduces depression is reinforced by a more recent study that observed subjects before and after wearing hearing aids. A 2011 study only observed a small group of people, 34 subjects altogether, the researchers discovered that after three months with hearing aids, all of them demonstrated substantial improvement in both depressive symptoms and mental functioning. Another small-scale study from 2012 found the same results even further out, with every single individual in the sample continuing to experience less depression six months after beginning to wear hearing aids. And even a full year after starting to use hearing aids, a group of veterans in a 1992 study were still experiencing relief from symptoms of depression.
It’s difficult coping with hearing loss but help is out there. Get your hearing checked, and know about your options. It could help improve more than your hearing, it might positively impact your quality of life in ways you hadn’t even envisioned.