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

About half of those over 70 and one in three U.S. adults are affected by age related hearing loss. But despite its prevalence, only about 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%!). Dependant upon whose data you look at, there are at least 20 million Americans who suffer from untreated loss of hearing; though some reports put this closer to 30 million.

There are a number of justifications for why people might not get treatment for hearing loss, especially as they get older. (One study found that just 28% of people who said they had hearing loss had even had their hearing tested, and most did not seek out additional treatment. It’s just part of the aging process, for some individuals, like grey hair or wrinkles. Hearing loss has long been easy to diagnose, but due to the considerable developments that have been made in the technology of hearing aids, it’s also a very treatable situation. Notably, more than just your hearing can be improved by managing hearing loss, according to an increasing body of data.

A recent study from a Columbia research group adds to the literature connecting loss of hearing and depression.
They give each participant an audiometric hearing examination and also examine them for signs of depression. After correcting for a range of variables, the analysts discovered that the odds of showing clinically substantial signs or symptoms of depression climbed by approximately 45% for every 20-decibel increase in loss of hearing. And to be clear, 20 dB is very little noise. It’s quieter than a whisper, roughly on par with the sound of leaves rustling.

The basic connection isn’t astonishing but it is surprising how rapidly the odds of being affected by depression increase with only a slight difference in sound. There is a large body of literature on hearing loss and depression and this new study adds to that research, like this multi-year analysis from 2000 which found that loss of hearing worsened in relation to a worsening of mental health, or this research from 2014 that revealed that both individuals who self-reported trouble hearing and who were discovered to have hearing loss based on hearing exams had a considerably higher chance of depression.

The plus side is: the link that researchers surmise is present between hearing loss and depression isn’t chemical or biological, it’s social. Regular conversations and social situations are often avoided because of the anxiety due to difficulty hearing. This can increase social alienation, which further feeds into feelings of depression and anxiety. It’s a cycle that is very easily broken even though it’s a vicious one.

Several researchers have found that treating hearing loss, typically using hearing aids, can help to relieve symptoms of depression. More than 1,000 people in their 70s were looked at in a 2014 study that finding that individuals who used hearing aids were significantly less likely to experience symptoms of depression, though the authors did not establish a cause-and-effect relationship since they were not looking at statistics over time.

However, the principle that treating hearing loss with hearing aids can relieve the symptoms of depression is born out by other studies that looked at subjects before and after using hearing aids. Though this 2011 study only looked at a small group of individuals, a total of 34, after just three months using hearing aids, according to the studies, they all revealed considerable progress in both depressive symptoms and cognitive functioning. The exact same result was found from even further out by another minor study from 2012, with every single individual six months out from starting to wear hearing aids, were still experiencing less depression. And in a study from 1992 that examined a larger cluster of U.S. military veterans suffering from loss of hearing found that a full 12 months after starting to use hearing aids, the vets were still suffering from fewer symptoms of depression.

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