Illini Hearing - Champaign and Mahomet, IL

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

Did you realize that age-related loss of hearing affects roughly one in three U.S. adults between 65 and 74 (and roughly half of those over 75)? But in spite of its prevalence, only about 30% of older Americans who suffer from hearing loss have ever used hearing aids (and that figure drops to 16% for those under 69!). At least 20 million Americans have neglected hearing loss depending on what data you look at; though some reports put this closer to 30 million.

As people get older, they overlook seeking treatment for loss of hearing for a number of considerations. (One study found that just 28% of people even had their hearing examined, though they reported suffering from loss of hearing, and most didn’t seek out additional treatment. For some people, it’s like wrinkles or gray hair, a normal part of aging. It’s been possible to diagnose hearing loss for some time, but currently, due to technological improvements, we can also treat it. Notably, more than just your hearing can be improved by managing hearing loss, according to an increasing body of data.

A recent study from a research group based at Columbia University, adds to the body of knowledge associating loss of hearing and depression.
They administer an audiometric hearing test to each participant and also examine them for signs of depression. After correcting for a number of factors, the researchers discovered that the odds of showing clinically significant symptoms of depression increased by about 45% for every 20-decibel increase in loss of hearing. And to be clear, 20 dB is very little noise. It’s about as loud as rustling leaves and is quieter than a whisper.

It’s surprising that such a slight change in hearing creates such a significant boost in the odds of experiencing depression, but the basic connection isn’t a shocker. There is a large collection 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 worsened alongside hearing loss, or this research from 2014 that revealed that both people who reported having problems hearing and who were found to have hearing loss based on hearing exams had a significantly higher risk of depression.

Here’s the plus side: it isn’t a biological or chemical link that researchers think exists between hearing loss and depression, it’s social. Regular interactions and social scenarios are often avoided due to anxiety due to problems hearing. This can increase social alienation, which further feeds into feelings of depression and anxiety. It’s a pattern that is easily disrupted despite the fact that it’s a vicious one.

The symptoms of depression can be reduced by treating hearing loss with hearing aids according to a few studies. 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 experience symptoms of depression, though the authors didn’t determine a cause-and-effect connection since they were not investigating data over time.

Nevertheless, the theory that dealing with hearing loss with hearing aids can ease the symptoms of depression is backed up by other studies that looked at subjects 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 three months with hearing aids, they all showed considerable progress in both cognitive functioning and depressive symptoms. Another minor study from 2012 discovered the exact same results even further out, with every single person six months out from beginning to use hearing aids, were still experiencing less depression. Large groupings of U.S. veterans who were suffering from hearing loss were looked at in a 1992 study that discovered that a full 12 months after starting to use hearing aids, the vets were still experiencing fewer symptoms of depression.

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