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

Around half of those over 70 and one in three U.S. adults are affected by age related loss of hearing. But in spite of its prevalence, only about 30% of older Americans who have loss of hearing have ever had hearing aids (and for those under 60, the number drops to 16%!). At least 20 million Americans suffer from neglected loss of hearing depending on what research you look at; though some reports put this closer to 30 million.

There are a number of reasons why people may not seek treatment for loss of hearing, especially as they get older. (One study found that just 28% of people even had their hearing examined, even though they said they suffered from hearing loss, and most did not seek further treatment. It’s simply part of getting older, for some individuals, like grey hair or wrinkles. It’s been possible to diagnose hearing loss for some time, but currently, due to technological improvements, we can also treat it. That’s significant because a growing body of research demonstrates that treating hearing loss can improve more than just your hearing.

A recent study from a Columbia research group adds to the body of knowledge associating loss of hearing and depression.
They assess each person for depression and give them an audiometric hearing test. After a number of variables are considered, the researchers discovered that the odds of showing clinically substantial symptoms of depression increased by approximately 45% for every 20-decibel increase in hearing loss. And to be clear, 20 dB is very little noise. It’s quieter than a whisper, approximately the same as the sound of rustling leaves.

It’s amazing that such a slight difference in hearing yields such a big boost in the odds of suffering from depression, but the basic link isn’t shocking. There is a large body of literature on depression and hearing loss and this new study adds to that research, like this multi-year analysis from 2000 which found that mental health got worse along with hearing loss, or this research from 2014 that found that both individuals who reported having trouble hearing and who were found to have loss of hearing based on hearing exams had a substantially higher chance of depression.

The plus side is: the link that researchers suspect exists between hearing loss and depression isn’t chemical or biological, it’s social. Problems hearing can cause feelings of stress and anxiety and lead sufferers to avoid social situations or even normal interactions. This can intensify social alienation, which further feeds into feelings of depression and anxiety. It’s a vicious cycle, but it’s also one that’s easily disrupted.

Numerous researchers have found that dealing with hearing loss, usually using hearing aids, can assist to alleviate symptoms of depression. Over 1,000 people in their 70s were examined in a 2014 study that finding that individuals who used hearing aids were significantly less more likely to experience symptoms of depression, but due to the fact that the authors didn’t look at the data over a period of time, they couldn’t pinpoint a cause and effect relationship.

Nonetheless, the concept that managing hearing loss with hearing aids can relieve the symptoms of depression is backed up by other research that looked at participants before and after getting hearing aids. Even though only a small cross section of people was looked at in this 2011 study, a total of 34, the analysts found that after only three months with hearing aids, they all displayed considerable progress in both cognitive functioning and depressive symptoms. The same result was discovered from even further out by another small scale study from 2012, with every single person six months out from starting to wear hearing aids, were continuing to experience less depression. And in a study originating in 1992 that examined a larger group of U.S. military veterans suffering from hearing loss discovered that a full 12 months after starting to wear hearing aids, fewer symptoms of depression were experienced by the vets.

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