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 around 30% of individuals who have hearing loss have ever used hearing aids (and that number drops to 16% for people under the age of 69! Depending on whose numbers you look at, there are at least 20 million individuals suffering from untreated hearing loss, although some estimates put this closer to 30 million.
There are numerous reasons why people might not seek treatment for hearing loss, particularly as they grow older. Only 28% of people who confirmed some degree of hearing loss actually got tested 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 advancements that have been made in hearing aid technology, it’s also a very manageable condition. That’s important because a growing body of research demonstrates that treating hearing loss can help more than your hearing.
A Columbia University research group performed a study that linked hearing loss to depression. They compiled data from over 5,000 people aged 50 and up, giving each subject an audiometric hearing exam and also assessing them for signs of depression. 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 is not very loud, it’s about the volume of rustling leaves, for the record.
It’s surprising that such a small difference in hearing produces such a significant increase in the odds of developing depression, but the basic link isn’t a shocker. This new study expands the sizable existing literature associating hearing loss and depression, like this multi-year investigation from 2000, which found that mental health worsened along with hearing loss. Another study from 2014 that found both individuals who self-reported difficulty hearing and who were found to have hearing loss according to hearing tests, had a significantly higher danger of depression.
The good news: The connection that researchers surmise exists between hearing loss and depression isn’t biological or chemical. It’s probably social. Individuals who have hearing loss will often avoid social situations due to anxiety and will even sometimes feel anxious about standard everyday situations. This can increase social isolation, which further feeds into feelings of depression and anxiety. But this vicious cycle can be broken fairly easily.
Treating hearing loss, normally with hearing aids, according to multiple studies, will lessen symptoms of depression. A 2014 study that looked at data from more than 1,000 individuals in their 70s found that those who used hearing aids were considerably less likely to experience symptoms of depression, although the authors did not determine a cause-and-effect relationship since they weren’t looking at data over time.
But other research, that followed subjects before and after using hearing aids, reinforces the theory that treating hearing loss can help reduce symptoms of depression. A 2011 study only looked at a small group of people, 34 subjects total, the researchers discovered that after three months with hearing aids, every one of them showed significant improvement in both depressive symptoms and mental functioning. And those results are long lasting as reported by a small-scale study carried out in 2012 which demonstrated continuing relief in depression symptoms for every single subject who wore hearing aids as much as 6 months out. And in a study from 1992 that looked at a bigger group of U.S. military veterans suffering from hearing loss, discovered that a full 12 months after beginning to use hearing aids, the vets were still noticing reduced depression symptoms.
It’s tough struggling with hearing loss but help is out there. Find out what your options are by having your hearing tested. It could help improve more than your hearing, it could positively affect your quality of life in ways you hadn’t even imagined.