Did you realize that age-related hearing loss impacts around one out of three people between the ages of 65 and 74 (and about half of them 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%. Depending on which numbers you look at, there are at least 20 million people suffering from untreated hearing loss, although some estimates put this closer to 30 million.
There are a variety of reasons why people might not get treatment for hearing loss, especially as they get older. Only 28% of people who confirmed some amount of hearing loss actually got tested or sought further treatment, according to one study. Many people just accept hearing loss as a standard part of getting older. Hearing loss has always been easy to diagnose, but thanks to the considerable improvements that have been made in hearing aid technology, it’s also a highly manageable condition. This is significant because your ability to hear is not the only health hazard linked to hearing loss.
A study from a research group based out of Columbia University adds to the documentation connecting hearing loss to depression. They collected data from over 5,000 people aged 50 and up, giving each subject an audiometric hearing exam and also evaluating them for symptoms of depression. After correcting for a range of variables, the researchers revealed that the odds of having clinically significant symptoms of depression increased by about 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 on par with the sound of rustling leaves.
It’s surprising that such a little difference in hearing creates such a large increase in the chances of developing depression, but the basic relationship isn’t a shock. This new study adds to the substantial existing literature linking 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 danger of depression was reported in people who both self reported hearing loss and individuals whose hearing loss was diagnosed from a hearing test.
Here’s the good news: The link that researchers suspect exists between hearing loss and depression isn’t chemical or biological. It’s probably social. Individuals who have hearing loss will frequently avoid social situations due to anxiety and will even often feel anxious about normal day-to-day situations. The social separation that results, feeds into feelings of depression and anxiety. But this vicious cycle can be broken rather easily.
Treating hearing loss, usually with hearing aids, according to numerous studies, will decrease symptoms of depression. 1,000 individuals in their 70’s were looked at in a 2014 study which couldn’t establish 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 neglected hearing loss.
But the hypothesis that treating hearing loss reduces depression is reinforced by a more recent study that followed subjects before and after wearing hearing aids. Only 34 individuals were examined in a 2011 study, but all of them showed significant improvements in depression symptoms and also cognitive function after wearing hearing aids for 3 months. And those results are long lasting as reported by a small-scale study carried out in 2012 which demonstrated ongoing 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 looked at a larger 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 experiencing reduced symptoms of depression.
Hearing loss is difficult, but you don’t have to go it alone. Get your hearing tested, and learn about your options. It could benefit more than your hearing, it might positively impact your quality of life in ways you hadn’t even envisioned.