Did you realize that age-related hearing impairment affects about one out of three individuals between the ages of 65 and 74 (and about half of those are over 75)? But despite its prevalence, only around 30% of people who have hearing loss have ever used hearing aids (and that number drops to 16% for people younger than 69! Depending on whose numbers you look at, there are at least 20 million individuals dealing with untreated hearing loss, although some estimates put this closer to 30 million.
As people get older, there could be a number of reasons why they would avoid getting help for their hearing loss. One study determined that only 28% of individuals who reported suffering from hearing loss had even had their hearing examined, let alone sought further treatment. Many individuals just accept hearing loss as a standard part of the process of aging. Hearing loss has always been easy to diagnose, but thanks to the substantial advancements that have been made in hearing aid technology, it’s also a highly manageable condition. That’s important because an increasing body of research shows that managing hearing loss can help more than just your hearing.
A study from a research group based out of Columbia University adds to the documentation linking hearing loss to depression. They collected data from over 5,000 people aged 50 and older, giving each subject an audiometric hearing exam and also assessing them for symptoms of depression. After adjusting for a host of variables, the researchers found that the likelihood of having clinically significant symptoms of depression increased by around 45% for every 20-decibel increase in hearing loss. And 20 decibels is not very loud, it’s around the volume of rustling leaves, for the record.
It’s surprising that such a small difference in hearing creates such a large increase in the odds of suffering from depression, but the basic relationship isn’t a shocker. This new study expands the substantial existing literature connecting hearing loss and depression, like this multi-year analysis from 2000, which found that mental health got worse along with hearing loss. Another study from 2014 that revealed both people who self-reported difficulty hearing and who were found to have hearing loss based on hearing tests, had a substantially higher risk of depression.
Here’s the good news: The connection that researchers suspect exists between hearing loss and depression isn’t biological or chemical. It’s probably social. People who have hearing loss will frequently steer clear of social situations due to anxiety and will even sometimes 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 terrible cycle, but it’s also one that’s broken easily.
Treating hearing loss, in most cases with hearing aids, according to multiple studies, will decrease symptoms of depression. 1.000 individuals in their 70’s were studied in a 2014 study which couldn’t define a cause and effect relationship between hearing loss and depression because it didn’t look over time, but it did reveal that those individuals were much more likely to suffer from depression symptoms if they had untreated hearing loss.
But other research, which followed subjects before and after wearing hearing aids, reinforces the hypothesis that treating hearing loss can help alleviate symptoms of depression. Only 34 individuals were assessed in a 2011 study, but all of them showed substantial improvements in symptoms of depressions and also mental function after using hearing aids for 3 months. And those results are long lasting according to a small-scale study conducted in 2012 which showed ongoing relief in depression symptoms for every single subject who used hearing aids as much as 6 months out. And even a full year after starting to use hearing aids, a group of veterans in a 1992 study were still noticing relief from symptoms of depression.
It’s tough coping with hearing loss but help is out there. Get your hearing examined, and learn about your solutions. It could benefit more than your hearing, it could positively impact your quality of life in ways you hadn’t even envisioned.