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

About half of those over 70 and one in three U.S. adults are affected by age related hearing loss. But despite its prevalence, only about 30% of older Americans who have hearing loss have ever used hearing aids (and that figure drops to 16% for those under 69!). Dependant upon whose data you look at, there are at least 20 million Americans who suffer from untreated hearing loss; though some estimates put this closer to 30 million.

As people grow older, they overlook seeking treatment for loss of hearing for a number of considerations. (One study found that just 28% of people even had their hearing tested, even though they reported suffering from loss of hearing, much less sought additional treatment. For some individuals, it’s like grey hair or wrinkles, just part of getting older. It’s been easy to diagnose hearing loss for some time, but now, thanks to technological advancements, we can also manage it. Significantly, more than only your hearing can be helped by treating loss of hearing, according to an increasing body of data.

A recent study from a research team working from Columbia University, links hearing loss and depression adding to the body of literature.
They assess each person for depression and give them an audiometric hearing test. After a number of variables are taken into account, the researchers found that the odds of having clinically significant symptoms of depression climbed by approximately 45% for every 20-decibel increase in loss of hearing. 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 change in hearing creates such a large increase in the odds of experiencing depression, but the basic link isn’t shocking. This new research adds to the substantial established literature linking hearing loss and depression, like this multi-year analysis from 2000 which found that mental health worsened alongside hearing loss, or this paper from 2014 that people had a significantly higher chance of depression when they were either diagnosed with loss of hearing or self reported it.

Here’s the plus side: the connection that researchers think exists between hearing loss and depression isn’t biological or chemical, it’s social. Normal interactions and social scenarios are generally avoided because of the anxiety over difficulty hearing. This can increase social isolation, which further feeds into feelings of depression and anxiety. It’s a cycle that is very easily disrupted even though it’s a vicious one.

Several studies have found that treating loss of hearing, usually with hearing aids, can assist to lessen symptoms of depression. A 2014 study that looked at 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, though the writers didn’t define a cause-and-effect connection since they were not looking at data over time.

Nonetheless, the concept that dealing with hearing loss with hearing aids can help the symptoms of depression is backed up by other studies that examined participants before and after getting hearing aids. Although only a small cross section of people was looked at in this 2011 research, a total of 34, the analysts discovered that after only three months using hearing aids, they all showed significant improvement in both cognitive functioning and depressive symptoms. Another small-scale study from 2012 revealed the same results even further out, with every single individual in the small sample continuing to have the symptoms of less depression six months after starting to use hearing aids. Large groupings of U.S. veterans who were suffering from hearing loss were examined in a 1992 study that discovered that a full 12 months after starting to use hearing aids, fewer symptoms of depression were experienced by the vets.

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