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

Did you know that age-related hearing loss impacts roughly one in three U.S. adults between 65 and 74 (and roughly half of those over 75)? But in spite of its prevalence, only around 30% of older Americans who suffer from hearing loss have ever used hearing aids (and that figure goes down to 16% for those under the age of 69!). At least 20 million Americans have neglected loss of hearing depending on what statistics you look at; though some estimates put this closer to 30 million.

There are a variety of reasons why people might not seek treatment for hearing loss, particularly as they grow older. (One study found that just 28% of people who said they suffered from loss of hearing had even had their hearing examined, much less sought further treatment. It’s just part of aging, for many individuals, like wrinkles or grey hair. Hearing loss has been easy to diagnose for a long time, but thanks to the substantial developments that have been made in the technology of hearing aids, it’s also a highly manageable situation. Notably, more than only your hearing can be improved by managing loss of hearing, according to a growing body of research.

A recent study from a Columbia research group links depression and loss of hearing adding to the body of literature.
They administer an audiometric hearing exam to each participant and also assess them for signs of depression. After a range of factors are considered, the analysts discovered that the odds of showing clinically substantial signs or symptoms of depression climbed by about 45% for every 20-decibel increase in loss of hearing. And for the record, 20 dB is very little noise. It’s about as loud as rustling leaves and is quieter than a whisper.

It’s amazing that such a tiny difference in hearing yields such a significant boost in the odds of suffering from depression, but the basic connection isn’t shocking. This new study adds to the sizable established literature linking loss of hearing and depression, like this multi-year analysis from 2000 which found that mental health got worse along with hearing loss, or this paper from 2014 that found that both people who reported having problems hearing and who were found to suffer from hearing loss based on hearing examinations had a substantially higher risk of depression.

The good news is: it isn’t a chemical or biological link that researchers suspect exists between hearing loss and depression, it’s social. Everyday interactions and social situations are often avoided due to anxiety over problems hearing. This can increase social isolation, which further feeds into feelings of depression and anxiety. It’s a cycle that is easily disrupted despite the fact that it’s a vicious one.

The symptoms of depression can be minimized by treating hearing loss with hearing aids according to several studies. Over 1,000 people in their 70s were evaluated in a 2014 study that finding that people who used hearing aids were significantly less more likely to experience symptoms of depression, though the authors did not determine a cause-and-effect connection since they were not observing data over time.

But other studies which followed individuals before and after getting hearing aids re-affirms the hypothesis that dealing with hearing loss can help alleviate symptoms of depression. Although only a small group of people was looked at in this 2011 research, a total of 34, after just three months with hearing aids, according to the research, all of them showed significant progress in both depressive symptoms and cognitive functioning. The exact same result was discovered from even further out by another small scale study from 2012, with every single person six months out from starting to wear hearing aids, were still experiencing less depression. Large groupings of U.S. veterans who were suffering from hearing loss were examined in a 1992 study that found that a full 12 months after beginning to wear hearing aids, the vets were still suffering from fewer symptoms of depression.

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