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 affected by age related hearing loss. But in spite of its prevalence, only around 30% of older Americans who suffer from loss of hearing have ever used hearing aids (and for those younger than 60, the number drops to 16%!). Depending on whose data you look at, there are at least 20 million Americans suffering from untreated loss of hearing; though some reports put this closer to 30 million.

As people get older, they neglect getting treatment for loss of hearing for a variety of reasons. (One study found that only 28% of people even had their hearing checked, though they reported suffering from hearing loss, much less looked into further treatment. It’s simply part of the aging process, for many people, like wrinkles or grey hair. Loss of hearing has been easy to diagnose for a long time, but thanks to the significant improvements that have been accomplished in the technology of hearing aids, it’s also a very treatable condition. That’s important because a growing body of data reveals that treating hearing loss can improve more than your hearing.

A recent study from a research group working from Columbia University, links hearing loss and depression adding to the body of literature.
They administer an audiometric hearing exam to each subject and also evaluate them for signs of depression. After a number of factors are taken into consideration, the researchers discovered that the odds of showing clinically substantial signs of depression increased by about 45% for every 20-decibel increase in hearing loss. And to be clear, 20 dB is very little noise. It’s quieter than a whisper, approximately the same as the sound of rustling leaves.

The basic link isn’t shocking but it is surprising how quickly the odds of getting depression go up with only a small difference in sound. This new research adds to the substantial existing literature linking hearing loss and depression, like this multi-year analysis from 2000 which found that hearing loss worsened in relation to a declining of mental health, or this paper from 2014 that people had a dramatically higher risk of depression when they were either clinically diagnosed with hearing loss or self reported it.

Here’s the good news: it isn’t a chemical or biological connection that researchers think exists between depression and hearing loss, it’s social. Difficulty hearing can cause feelings of stress and anxiety and lead sufferers to avoid social scenarios or even everyday conversations. 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 easily broken.

Numerous studies have found that dealing with hearing loss, typically using hearing aids, can assist to relieve symptoms of depression. A 2014 study that examined data from over 1,000 individuals in their 70s revealing that people who used hearing aids were significantly less likely to experience symptoms of depression, but because the authors didn’t evaluate the data over a period of time, they couldn’t define a cause and effect relationship.

However, the concept that dealing with loss of hearing with hearing aids can relieve the symptoms of depression is born out by other research that looked at individuals before and after getting hearing aids. Although only a small group of people was looked at in this 2011 research, 34 people total, after just three months using hearing aids, according to the research, all of them displayed considerable improvement in both cognitive functioning and depressive symptoms. The same result was discovered from even further out by another minor study from 2012, with every single individual six months out from starting to use hearing aids, were continuing to experience less depression. And in a study from 1992 that looked at a larger group 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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