Are you aware that about one out of three people between the ages of 65 and 74 is affected by hearing impairment and half of them are older than 75? But even though so many individuals are affected by hearing loss, 70% of them have never used hearing aids and for those under 69, that number drops to 16%. Depending on whose numbers you look at, there are at least 20 million people dealing with untreated hearing loss, though some estimates put this closer to 30 million.
There are a number of reasons why people might not get treatment for hearing loss, especially as they get older. One study determined that only 28% of individuals who reported suffering from hearing loss had even had their hearing examined, never mind sought further treatment. For some folks, it’s like wrinkles or gray hair, just a part of growing old. Treating hearing loss has always been more of a problem than diagnosing it, but with improvements in modern hearing aid technology, that’s not the situation now. That’s relevant because an increasing body of research shows that managing hearing loss can improve more than your hearing.
A study from a research group based at Columbia University adds to the documentation relating hearing loss and depression. An audiometric hearing test and a depression screening were given to the over 5,000 individuals that they collected data from. For every 20 decibels of increased hearing loss, the odds of having significant depression rose by 45% according to these researchers after they adjusted for a range of variables. And 20 decibels isn’t very loud, it’s about the volume of rustling leaves, for the record.
It’s surprising that such a small difference in hearing generates such a large increase in the odds of suffering from depression, but the basic connection isn’t a shock. The fact that mental health gets worse as hearing loss gets worse is revealed by this research and a multi-year analysis from 2000, expanding a sizable body of literature linking the two. In another study, a considerably higher risk of depression was reported in people who both self reported hearing loss and individuals 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. It’s likely social. Individuals with hearing loss will often steer clear of social interaction because of anxiety and will even sometimes feel anxious about normal everyday situations. This can increase social isolation, which further feeds into feelings of anxiety and depression. But this vicious cycle can be broken fairly easily.
Treating hearing loss, usually with hearing aids, according to numerous studies, will decrease symptoms of depression. A 2014 study that looked at data from over 1,000 individuals in their 70s discovered that those who wore hearing aids were significantly less likely to experience symptoms of depression, even though the authors did not determine a cause-and-effect relationship since they weren’t viewing the data over time.
But the hypothesis that treating hearing loss relieves depression is reinforced by a more recent study that followed subjects before and after getting hearing aids. Only 34 people were examined in a 2011 study, but all of them showed substantial improvements in depression symptoms and also cognitive 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 continuing relief in depression symptoms for every single subject who wore 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 difficult struggling with hearing loss but help is out there. Learn what your solutions are by having your hearing tested. It could benefit more than your hearing, it could positively impact your quality of life in ways you hadn’t even imagined.