Did you realize that age-related hearing impairment affects approximately one in three individuals between the ages of 65 and 74 (and roughly half of those are older than 75)? But even though so many people are impacted by hearing loss, 70% of them have never used hearing aids and for people under 69, that number drops to 16%. At least 20 million people cope with neglected hearing loss and some reports put this number at over 30 million.
There are numerous reasons why people might not seek treatment for hearing loss, especially as they grow older. One study found that only 28% of individuals who said they suffered from hearing loss had even gotten their hearing tested, let alone sought additional treatment. Many people just accept hearing loss as a normal part of the process of aging. Treating hearing loss has always been more of a problem than diagnosing it, but with developments in modern hearing aid technology, that isn’t the situation anymore. That’s important because an increasing body of research indicates that managing hearing loss can improve more than just your hearing.
A study from a research group based at Columbia University adds to the documentation connecting hearing loss to depression. An audiometric hearing exam and a depression assessment were given to the over 5,000 people that they gathered data from. After adjusting 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 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 generates such a significant increase in the chances of suffering from depression, but the basic relationship isn’t a shock. 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. In another study, a considerably higher risk of depression was reported in people who both self reported hearing loss and people whose hearing loss was diagnosed from a hearing test.
The good news: The link that researchers surmise exists between hearing loss and depression isn’t biological or chemical. In all likelihood, it’s social. People who have hearing loss will often steer clear of social interaction because of anxiety and will even sometimes feel anxious about typical everyday situations. This can increase social separation, which further feeds into feelings of anxiety and depression. But this vicious cycle can be broken fairly easily.
Multiple studies have revealed that treating hearing loss, typically with hearing aids, can help to alleviate symptoms of depression. A 2014 study that looked at data from more than 1,000 people in their 70s discovered that those who used hearing aids were considerably less likely to experience symptoms of depression, even though the authors did not identify a cause-and-effect relationship since they weren’t viewing the data over time.
But other research, which observed subjects before and after getting hearing aids, reinforces the theory that treating hearing loss can help alleviate symptoms of depression. A 2011 study only observed a small group of people, 34 subjects altogether, the researchers discovered that after three months with hearing aids, every one of them showed considerable 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 notice less depression six months after starting to use hearing aids. And in a study from 1992 that observed a bigger group of U.S. military veterans dealing with hearing loss, discovered that a full 12 months after starting to use hearing aids, the vets were still noticing reduced symptoms of depression.
Hearing loss is hard, but you don’t need to go it alone. Learn what your options are by having your hearing tested. It could benefit more than your hearing, it might positively affect your quality of life in ways you hadn’t even envisioned.