Man isolated and depressed in a cafe because he has hearing loss.

Did you know that age-related loss of hearing affects around one in three U.S. adults between 65 and 74 (and roughly half of those over 75)? But in spite of its prevalence, only around 30% of older Americans who suffer from hearing loss have ever had hearing aids (and for those under 60, the number drops to 16%!). Depending on whose figures you look at, there are at least 20 million Americans who suffer from neglected hearing loss; though some estimates put this closer to 30 million.

There are a variety of reasons why people may not get treatment for loss of hearing, specifically as they grow older. (One study found that only 28% of people who said they suffered from hearing loss had even gotten their hearing examined, much less sought further treatment. It’s simply part of getting older, for many people, like grey hair or wrinkles. It’s been possible to diagnose loss of hearing for some time, but currently, due to technological developments, we can also manage it. That’s significant because a developing body of data reveals that treating loss of hearing can help more than just your hearing.

A recent study from a Columbia research team links hearing loss and depression adding to the body of knowledge.
They examine each person for depression and administer an audiometric hearing examination. After adjusting for a number of variables, the researchers found that the odds of showing clinically substantial symptoms of depression increased by about 45% for every 20-decibel increase in loss of hearing. And to be clear, 20 dB is very little noise. It’s quieter than a whisper, about on par with the sound of rustling leaves.

The general link isn’t astonishing but it is striking how rapidly the odds of suffering from depression increase with only a slight difference in sound. There is a large collection of literature on hearing loss and depression and this new study adds to that research, like this multi-year analysis from 2000 which found that hearing loss got worse in relation to a worsening of mental health, or this study from 2014 that revealed that both individuals who self-reported problems hearing and who were discovered to suffer from hearing loss based on hearing exams had a substantially higher risk of depression.

The good news is: it isn’t a chemical or biological link that researchers suspect exists between depression and hearing loss, it’s social. Difficulty hearing can cause feelings of stress and anxiety and lead sufferers to stay away from social situations or even everyday interactions. This can increase social isolation, which further feeds into feelings of depression and anxiety. It’s a horrible cycle, but it’s also one that’s easily disrupted.

Numerous researchers have found that treating loss of hearing, typically with hearing aids, can assist to lessen symptoms of depression. A 2014 study that investigated statistics from over 1,000 people in their 70s revealing that individuals who used hearing aids were significantly less likely to have symptoms of depression, but because the authors didn’t focus on the data over a period of time, they could not pinpoint a cause and effect relationship.

But other research that’s followed individuals before and after getting hearing aids re-affirms the theory that treating loss of hearing can help alleviate symptoms of depression. Though this 2011 study only examined a small group of individuals, 34 subjects total, the researchers discovered that after only three months using hearing aids, all of them showed considerable improvement in both depressive symptoms and cognitive functioning. The exact same outcome was discovered from even further out by another minor study from 2012, with every single individual six months out from starting to use hearing aids, were continuing to experience less depression. And in a study from 1992 that observed a larger group of U.S. military veterans suffering from hearing loss discovered that a full 12 months after beginning to use hearing aids, fewer symptoms of depression were experienced by the vets.

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