Did you realize that age-related hearing loss affects about one out of three individuals between the ages of 65 and 74 (and roughly half of them are over 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 those under the age of 69! At least 20 million people deal with untreated hearing loss and some reports put this number at over 30 million.
There are a number of reasons why people might not get treatment for hearing loss, especially as they grow older. Only 28% of people who reported some degree of hearing loss actually got examined or sought further treatment, according to one study. For some folks, it’s like wrinkles or gray hair, just a part of aging. Hearing loss has long been easy to diagnose, but thanks to the substantial advancements that have been made in hearing aid technology, it’s also a highly treatable condition. That’s important because an increasing body of research demonstrates that managing hearing loss can improve more than just your hearing.
A study from a research group based out of Columbia University adds to the documentation relating hearing loss to depression. They collected data from over 5,000 people aged 50 and older, giving each subject an audiometric hearing test and also assessing them for symptoms of depression. For every 20 decibels of increased hearing loss, the odds of dealing with significant depression rose by 45% according to these researchers after they took into account a host of variables. And for the record, 20 dB is very little noise, it’s lower than a whisper, approximately on par with the sound of rustling leaves.
The basic relationship between hearing loss and depression isn’t that surprising, but what is shocking is how small a difference can so dramatically increase the likelihood of suffering from depression. The fact that mental health worsens as hearing loss worsens is revealed by this research and a multi-year analysis from 2000, adding to a considerable body of literature connecting the two. Another study from 2014 that found both individuals who self-reported trouble hearing and who were found to have hearing loss based on hearing tests, had a substantially higher risk of depression.
The good news: Researchers and scientists don’t think that it’s a chemical or biological link that exists between hearing loss and depression. In all likelihood, it’s social. Difficulty hearing can lead to feelings of anxiety and lead sufferers to steer clear of social interaction or even day-to-day conversations. The social separation that results, feeds into feelings of depression and anxiety. But this vicious cycle can be broken rather easily.
Several studies have found that treating hearing loss, usually with hearing aids, can help to decrease symptoms of depression. A 2014 study that looked at data from more than 1,000 individuals in their 70s found that those who wore hearing aids were considerably less likely to cope with symptoms of depression, even though the authors did not identify a cause-and-effect relationship since they were not viewing the data over time.
But other research, which observed subjects before and after using hearing aids, bears out the theory that treating hearing loss can help alleviate 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, all of them showed substantial improvement in both depressive symptoms and mental 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 experiencing relief from depression symptoms.
Hearing loss is difficult, but you don’t have to go it alone. Get your hearing tested, and learn about your options. Your hearing will be enhanced and so will your overall quality of life.