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

Around half of those over 70 and one in three U.S. adults are impacted by age related loss of hearing. But in spite of its prevalence, only about 30% of older Americans who have loss of hearing have ever used hearing aids (and for those under 60, the number drops to 16%!). At least 20 million Americans have untreated loss of hearing depending on what numbers you look at; though some estimates put this closer to 30 million.

There are a number of justifications for why people may not get treatment for loss of hearing, specifically as they grow older. (One study found that just 28% of people even had their hearing checked, even though they said they suffered from loss of hearing, and most didn’t seek out additional treatment. It’s just part of getting older, for some individuals, like grey hair or wrinkles. Hearing loss has long been easy to diagnose, but thanks to the significant developments that have been made in hearing aid technology, it’s also a very manageable condition. That’s important because an increasing body of research reveals that treating loss of hearing can improve more than just your hearing.

A recent study from a research group working from Columbia University, adds to the literature associating hearing loss and depression.
They administer an audiometric hearing test to each participant and also evaluate them for symptoms of depression. After a range of variables are considered, the analysts found that the odds of having clinically significant symptoms of depression increased by approximately 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 leaves rustling.

It’s surprising that such a tiny change in hearing creates such a significant boost in the odds of being affected by depression, but the basic link isn’t shocking. There is a large body 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 loss of hearing got worse in relation to a worsening of mental health, or this research from 2014 that people had a dramatically higher risk of depression when they were either clinically diagnosed with hearing loss or self reported it.

The good news is: the connection that researchers think exists between loss of hearing and depression isn’t chemical or biological, it’s social. Regular interactions and social situations are generally avoided due to anxiety over difficulty hearing. This can intensify social alienation, which further feeds into feelings of depression and anxiety. It’s a horrible cycle, but it’s also one that’s quickly broken.

The symptoms of depression can be eased by treating hearing loss with hearing aids according to a few studies. A 2014 study that evaluated data from over 1,000 people in their 70s discovered that those who used hearing aids were significantly less more likely to have symptoms of depression, but due to the fact that the authors didn’t analyze the data over time, they could not determine a cause and effect relationship.

But other research that’s followed participants before and after using hearing aids re-affirms the hypothesis that dealing with loss of hearing can help alleviate symptoms of depression. Although this 2011 study only examined a small cluster of individuals, 34 individuals total, the analysts found that after three months using hearing aids, they all showed significant improvement in both cognitive functioning and depressive symptoms. The exact same result was found from even further out by another small scale study from 2012, with every single person six months out from beginning to use hearing aids, were still experiencing less depression. And in a study from 1992 that looked at a larger cluster of U.S. military veterans suffering from hearing loss discovered that a full 12 months after starting to wear hearing aids, fewer symptoms of depression were experienced by the vets.

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