Did you know that age-related hearing loss affects roughly one out of three people between the ages of 65 and 74 (and roughly half of those are over 75)? But in spite of its prevalence, only around 30% of people who have hearing loss have ever used hearing aids (and that number goes down to 16% for people under the age of 69! Depending on whose numbers you look at, there are at least 20 million individuals suffering from neglected hearing loss, although some estimates put this closer to 30 million.
There are a variety of reasons why people may not seek treatment for hearing loss, especially as they get older. Only 28% of people who reported some degree of hearing loss actually got tested or looked into further treatment, according to one study. Many people just accept hearing loss as a standard part of getting older. Managing 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 anymore. This is significant because your ability to hear is not the only health hazard linked to hearing loss.
A Columbia University research group carried out a study that linked hearing loss to depression. An audiometric hearing test and a depression assessment were given to the over 5,000 people that they compiled data from. After adjusting for a range of variables, the researchers found that the odds of having clinically significant symptoms of depression goes up by around 45% for every 20-decibel increase in hearing loss. And for the record, 20 dB is very little noise, it’s quieter than a whisper, roughly equal to the sound of rustling leaves.
It’s surprising that such a small difference in hearing produces such a large increase in the likelihood of developing depression, but the basic link isn’t a shocker. The fact that mental health gets worse as hearing loss worsens is demonstrated by this research and a multi-year investigation from 2000, expanding a substantial body of literature connecting the two. Another study from 2014 that revealed both individuals who self-reported difficulty hearing and who were found to have hearing loss based on hearing tests, had a significantly higher risk of depression.
The good news: The relationship that researchers surmise exists between hearing loss and depression isn’t chemical or biological. More than likely, it’s social. Trouble hearing can lead to feelings of stress and anxiety and lead sufferers to stay away from social interaction or even day to day conversations. The social separation that results, feeds into feelings of depression and anxiety. But this vicious cycle can be broken fairly easily.
Numerous studies have found that treating hearing loss, most often with hearing aids, can help to decrease symptoms of depression. 1,000 individuals in their 70’s were studied in a 2014 study which couldn’t define a cause and effect relationship between depression and hearing loss because it didn’t look over time, but it did reveal that those people were much more likely to experience depression symptoms if they had untreated hearing loss.
But other research, that observed subjects before and after using hearing aids, bears out the theory that treating hearing loss can help reduce symptoms of depression. A 2011 study only looked at a small group of people, 34 subjects altogether, the researchers discovered that after three months with hearing aids, all of them demonstrated substantial improvement in both depressive symptoms and cognitive functioning. And those results are long lasting as reported by a small-scale study conducted in 2012 which demonstrated continuing relief in depression symptoms for every single subject who used hearing aids as much as 6 months out. And in a study from 1992 that observed a bigger group of U.S. military veterans coping with hearing loss, found that a full 12 months after starting to use hearing aids, the vets were still noticing reduced depression symptoms.
Hearing loss is difficult, but you don’t need to go it alone. Get your hearing examined, and learn about your options. Your hearing will be improved and so will your overall quality of life.