Are you aware that about one out of three adults between the ages of 65 and 74 is affected by hearing impairment and half of them are over 75? But despite its prevalence, only about 30% of people who have hearing loss have ever used hearing aids (and that number drops to 16% for people under the age of 69! At least 20 million people suffer from untreated hearing loss and some reports put this number at over 30 million.
There are numerous reasons why people might not seek treatment for hearing loss, especially as they get older. One study found that only 28% of people who said they suffered from hearing loss had even gotten their hearing examined, never mind sought additional treatment. Many individuals just accept hearing loss as a standard part of the process of aging. Hearing loss has always been easy to diagnose, but thanks to the substantial developments that have been made in hearing aid technology, it’s also a very treatable condition. That’s important because an increasing body of research demonstrates that treating hearing loss can improve more than your hearing.
A Columbia University research group conducted a study that linked hearing loss to depression. They compiled data from over 5,000 adults aged 50 and up, giving each subject an audiometric hearing exam and also assessing them for symptoms of depression. For every 20 decibels of increased hearing loss, the likelihood of having significant depression rose by 45% according to these researchers after they took into account a range of variables. And 20 decibels isn’t very loud, it’s around the volume of rustling leaves, for the record.
The basic link between hearing loss and depression isn’t that surprising, but what is striking is how small a difference can so dramatically increase the probability of suffering from depression. The fact that mental health gets worse as hearing loss gets worse is demonstrated by this research and a multi-year analysis from 2000, expanding a sizable body of literature linking the two. Another study from 2014 that found both people who self-reported difficulty hearing and who were found to have hearing loss based on hearing tests, had a substantially higher danger of depression.
Here’s the good news: The connection that researchers suspect exists between hearing loss and depression isn’t biological or chemical. In all likelihood, it’s social. Difficulty hearing can cause feelings of stress and anxiety and lead sufferers to avoid social interaction or even everyday conversations. This can increase social separation, which further 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 lessen symptoms of depression. A 2014 study that looked at data from more than 1,000 people in their 70s found that those who used hearing aids were significantly less likely to suffer from symptoms of depression, even though the authors did not define a cause-and-effect relationship since they weren’t looking at data over time.
But other research, which followed subjects before and after wearing hearing aids, bears out the hypothesis that treating hearing loss can help relieve symptoms of depression. A 2011 study only looked at a small group of people, 34 subjects total, the researchers found that after three months with hearing aids, every one of them showed substantial improvement in both depressive symptoms and cognitive functioning. Another small-scale study from 2012 found the same results even further out, with every single individual in the sample continuing to experience less depression six months after starting to wear hearing aids. And even a full year after starting to use hearing aids, a group of veterans in a 1992 study were still experiencing relief from symptoms of depression.
Hearing loss is hard, but you don’t have to go it alone. Get your hearing checked, and learn about your solutions. It could help improve more than your hearing, it might positively affect your quality of life in ways you hadn’t even envisioned.