Are you aware that about one out of three adults between the ages of 65 and 74 is impacted by hearing impairment and half of them are older than 75? But despite its prevalence, only about 30% of individuals 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 people suffering from untreated hearing loss, though some estimates put this closer to 30 million.
There are numerous reasons why people might not get treatment for hearing loss, particularly as they get older. Only 28% of people who reported some amount of hearing loss actually got tested or looked into further treatment, according to one study. For some people, it’s like gray hair or wrinkles, just a part of aging. Managing hearing loss has always been more of a problem than diagnosing it, but with improvements in modern hearing aid technology, that isn’t the situation anymore. This is significant because your ability to hear isn’t the only health risk associated with hearing loss.
A Columbia University research group carried out a study that connected hearing loss to depression. They gathered data from over 5,000 people aged 50 and up, giving each subject an audiometric hearing test and also assessing them for signs of depression. For every 20 decibels of increased hearing loss, the chances of dealing with significant depression rose by 45% according to these researchers after they adjusted for a range of variables. And for the record, 20 dB is very little noise, it’s lower than a whisper, roughly on par with the sound of rustling leaves.
It’s surprising that such a small difference in hearing creates such a large increase in the likelihood of developing depression, but the basic link 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, adding to a sizable body of literature linking the two. In another study, a significantly 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.
The good news: Researchers and scientists don’t believe that it’s a biological or chemical connection that exists between hearing loss and depression. More than likely, it’s social. Individuals with hearing loss will often steer clear of social interaction because of anxiety and will even often feel anxious about normal everyday situations. This can increase social separation, which further leads to even more feelings of anxiety and depression. It’s a vicious cycle, but it’s also one that’s broken easily.
Treating hearing loss, usually with hearing aids, according to several studies, will decrease symptoms of depression. 1,000 people in their 70’s were studied in a 2014 study which couldn’t define a cause and effect relationship between hearing loss and depression because it didn’t look over time, but it did show that those individuals were much more likely to experience depression symptoms if they had neglected hearing loss.
But other research, which followed subjects before and after using hearing aids, reinforces the hypothesis 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 found that after three months with hearing aids, every one of them showed significant improvement in both depressive symptoms and cognitive functioning. Another small-scale study from 2012 revealed the same results even further out, with every single person in the group continuing to experience less depression six months after beginning to wear hearing aids. And even a full 12 months after beginning to use hearing aids, a group of veterans in a 1992 study were still noticing relief from depression symptoms.
It’s difficult coping with hearing loss but help is out there. Get your hearing examined, and know about your solutions. Your hearing will be improved and so will your overall quality of life.