Are you aware that around one in three people between the ages of 65 and 74 is affected by hearing impairment and half of them are older than 75? But in spite of its prevalence, only about 30% of those who have hearing loss have ever used hearing aids (and that number drops to 16% for people younger than 69! At least 20 million people suffer from neglected hearing loss and some reports put this number at over 30 million.
There are a variety of reasons why people may not seek treatment for hearing loss, especially as they grow older. Only 28% of people who confirmed some degree of hearing loss actually got examined or looked into further treatment, according to one study. For some people, it’s like wrinkles or gray hair, just a part of aging. Hearing loss has long been easy to diagnose, but thanks to the considerable improvements that have been made in hearing aid technology, it’s also a highly manageable condition. That’s important because a growing body of research demonstrates that treating hearing loss can improve more than your hearing.
A study from a research group based at Columbia University adds to the literature relating hearing loss to depression. An audiometric hearing test and a depression assessment were given to the over 5,000 individuals that they compiled data from. For every 20 decibels of increased hearing loss, the chances of having significant depression rose by 45% according to these researchers after they took into account a host of variables. And 20 decibels isn’t very loud, it’s around the volume of rustling leaves, for the record.
It’s surprising that such a little difference in hearing generates such a significant increase in the likelihood of suffering from depression, but the basic relationship isn’t a shocker. This new study contributes to the substantial existing literature connecting hearing loss and depression, like this multi-year analysis from 2000, which found that mental health got worse along with hearing loss. Another study from 2014 that revealed both individuals who self-reported trouble hearing and who were found to have hearing loss according to hearing tests, had a significantly higher risk of depression.
Here’s the good news: The relationship that researchers suspect exists between hearing loss and depression isn’t biological or chemical. It’s probably social. People who have hearing loss will often avoid social situations due to anxiety and will even sometimes feel anxious about standard everyday situations. The social separation that results, feeds into feelings of depression and anxiety. But this vicious cycle can be broken fairly easily.
Several studies have found that treating hearing loss, most often with hearing aids, can help to reduce symptoms of depression. 1,000 individuals in their 70’s were looked at in a 2014 study which couldn’t determine a cause and effect relationship between depression and hearing loss because it didn’t look over time, but it did reveal that those individuals were much more likely to experience depression symptoms if they had untreated hearing loss.
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 people were examined in a 2011 study, but all of them showed significant improvements in depression symptoms and also cognitive function after using hearing aids for 3 months. Another small-scale study from 2012 found the same results even further out, with every single individual in the sample continuing to notice less depression six months after beginning to use hearing aids. And in a study from 1992 that looked at a bigger group of U.S. military veterans suffering from hearing loss, found that a full 12 months after starting to use hearing aids, the vets were still noticing reduced symptoms of depression.
It’s difficult struggling with hearing loss but help is out there. Get your hearing checked, and know about your options. It could help improve more than your hearing, it could positively impact your quality of life in ways you hadn’t even imagined.