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

About half of those over 70 and one in three U.S. adults are impacted by age related hearing loss. But despite its prevalence, only around 30% of older Americans who suffer from loss of hearing have ever used hearing aids (and that number goes down to 16% for those under the age of 69!). Dependant upon whose numbers you look at, there are at least 20 million Americans who suffer from untreated hearing loss; though some estimates put this closer to 30 million.

As people get older, they neglect seeking treatment for hearing loss for a number of reasons. (One study found that only 28% of people even had their hearing tested, though they said they suffered from loss of hearing, and most didn’t seek out additional treatment. For some people, it’s like grey hair or wrinkles, a normal part of getting older. It’s been easy to diagnose hearing loss for a long time, but now, due to technological improvements, we can also deal with it. Significantly, more than only your hearing can be helped by treating loss of hearing, according to a growing body of research.

A recent study from a Columbia research group connects depression and loss of hearing adding to the body of literature.
They administer an audiometric hearing test to each subject and also assess them for symptoms of depression. After correcting for a range of variables, the analysts found that the odds of showing clinically substantial signs of depression climbed 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, roughly the same as the sound of rustling leaves.

It’s surprising that such a tiny change in hearing yields such a significant increase in the odds of experiencing depression, but the basic link isn’t a shocker. This new research adds to the substantial existing literature linking hearing loss and depression, like this multi-year analysis from 2000 which found that mental health got worse alongside hearing loss, or this study from 2014 that people had a considerably higher risk of depression when they were either diagnosed with loss of hearing or self reported it.

Here’s the good news: it isn’t a biological or chemical link that researchers think exists between hearing loss and depression, it’s social. Everyday conversations and social scenarios are often avoided due to anxiety over difficulty hearing. This can intensify social isolation, which further feeds into feelings of depression and anxiety. It’s a horrible cycle, but it’s also one that’s quickly disrupted.

Numerous studies have found that treating hearing loss, usually with hearing aids, can help to reduce symptoms of depression. Over 1,000 people in their 70s were examined in a 2014 study that finding that people who used hearing aids were significantly less likely to have symptoms of depression, but due to the fact that the authors didn’t examine the data over time, they couldn’t define a cause and effect relationship.

But other research that’s followed individuals before and after using hearing aids bears out the theory that dealing with loss of hearing can assist in alleviating symptoms of depression. Even though only a small group of people was looked at in this 2011 research, a total of 34, after just three months with hearing aids, according to the studies, all of them revealed considerable progress in both cognitive functioning and depressive symptoms. Another small-scale study from 2012 found the exact same results even further out, with every single individual six months out from beginning to wear hearing aids, were still experiencing less depression. Large groups of U.S. veterans who were suffering from loss of hearing were evaluated in a 1992 study that found that a full 12 months after beginning to use hearing aids, fewer symptoms of depression were experienced by the vets.

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