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

Did you realize that age-related hearing loss affects around one in three U.S. adults between the ages of 65 and 74 (and around half of those over 75)? But in spite of its prevalence, only about 30% of older Americans who have hearing loss have ever had hearing aids (and for those younger than 60, the number drops to 16%!). Depending on whose data you look at, there are at least 20 million Americans who suffer from untreated loss of hearing; though some reports put this closer to 30 million.

As people grow older, they neglect getting treatment for hearing loss for a variety of reasons. (One study found that just 28% of people who said that they had loss of hearing had even gotten their hearing tested, much less looked into additional treatment. It’s just part of growing old, for some individuals, like grey hair or wrinkles. Hearing loss has long been easy to diagnose, but thanks to the substantial improvements that have been made in the technology of hearing aids, it’s also a highly treatable condition. Significantly, more than just your hearing can be helped by managing hearing loss, according to an expanding body of data.

A recent study from a research team based at Columbia University, links hearing loss and depression adding to the body of knowledge.
They assess each subject for depression and give them an audiometric hearing examination. After a range of variables are considered, the researchers found that the odds of having clinically substantial signs of depression climbed by approximately 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 leaves rustling and is quieter than a whisper.

It’s surprising that such a slight difference in hearing creates such a significant increase in the odds of being affected by depression, but the basic link isn’t a shocker. This new study adds to the substantial established literature connecting loss of hearing and depression, like this multi-year analysis from 2000 which found that mental health got worse along with hearing loss, or this paper from 2014 that revealed that both people who self-reported problems hearing and who were discovered to have hearing loss based on hearing examinations had a considerably higher chance of depression.

Here’s the plus side: it isn’t a chemical or biological link that researchers think exists between depression and hearing loss, it’s social. Normal conversations and social scenarios are generally avoided because of the anxiety over 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 horrible one.

Several researchers have found that treating loss of hearing, usually using hearing aids, can assist to relieve symptoms of depression. A 2014 study that investigated statistics from over 1,000 individuals in their 70s revealing that those who used hearing aids were significantly less more likely to have symptoms of depression, but because the authors didn’t considered the data over a period of time, they couldn’t determine a cause and effect connection.

However, the principle that dealing with hearing loss with hearing aids can help the symptoms of depression is born out by other studies that evaluated participants before and after getting hearing aids. Although this 2011 study only checked a small cluster of people, a total of 34, after just three months using hearing aids, according to the studies, they all revealed considerable progress in both depressive symptoms and cognitive functioning. Another minor study from 2012 revealed the same results even further out, with every single person in the small sample continuing to have the symptoms of less depression six months prior to starting to use hearing aids. And in a study originating in 1992 that looked at a larger cluster of U.S. military veterans suffering from hearing loss discovered that a full 12 months after beginning to wear hearing aids, fewer symptoms of depression were experienced by the vets.

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