Did you realize that age-related hearing impairment impacts around one out of three people between the ages of 65 and 74 (and about half of them are over 75)? But even though so many people are impacted by hearing loss, 70% of them have never used hearing aids and for people under 69, that number drops to 16%. Depending on which numbers you look at, there are at least 20 million individuals dealing with untreated hearing loss, though some estimates put this closer to 30 million.
As people get older, there may be several reasons why they would avoid seeking help for their hearing loss. Only 28% of people who confirmed some amount of hearing loss actually got examined or sought further treatment, according to one study. Many people just accept hearing loss as a normal part of getting older. Managing hearing loss has always been more of a problem than diagnosing it, but with improvements in modern hearing aid technology, that isn’t the case anymore. This is significant because your ability to hear isn’t the only health risk linked to hearing loss.
A Columbia University research group carried out a study that linked hearing loss to depression. An audiometric hearing exam and a depression screening were given to the over 5,000 people that they collected data from. After adjusting for a range of variables, the researchers found that the likelihood of having clinically significant symptoms of depression goes up by about 45% for every 20-decibel increase in hearing loss. 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 link between hearing loss and depression isn’t that surprising, but what is shocking is how small a difference can so significantly increase the likelihood of suffering from depression. This new study adds to the sizable existing literature linking hearing loss and depression, like this multi-year investigation from 2000, which found that mental health got worse along with hearing loss. Another study from 2014 that found both individuals who self-reported problems hearing and who were found to have hearing loss based on hearing tests, had a substantially higher risk of depression.
The good news: The connection that researchers suspect exists between hearing loss and depression isn’t biological or chemical. It’s likely social. Trouble hearing can lead to feelings of anxiety and lead sufferers to avoid social interaction or even everyday conversations. This can increase social separation, which further leads to even more feelings of anxiety and depression. It’s a vicious cycle, but it’s also one that’s broken easily.
Treating hearing loss, in most cases 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 discovered that those who used hearing aids were considerably less likely to experience symptoms of depression, although the authors did not identify a cause-and-effect relationship since they were not looking at data over time.
But the hypothesis that treating hearing loss alleviates depression is reinforced by a more recent study that followed subjects before and after wearing hearing aids. Only 34 individuals were evaluated in a 2011 study, but all of them showed significant improvements in depression symptoms and also mental function after wearing hearing aids for 3 months. And those results are long lasting according to a small-scale study carried out in 2012 which showed continuing relief in depression symptoms for every single subject who used hearing aids as much as 6 months out. And even a full year after starting to use hearing aids, a group of veterans in a 1992 study were still noticing relief from symptoms of depression.
Hearing loss is difficult, but you don’t have to go it alone. Find out what your solutions are by getting a hearing test. It could help improve more than your hearing, it might positively affect your quality of life in ways you hadn’t even imagined.