Did you realize that age-related hearing impairment affects around one in three adults between the ages of 65 and 74 (and about 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! At least 20 million people deal with neglected hearing loss and some reports put this number at over 30 million.
There are a number of reasons why people might not get treatment for hearing loss, particularly as they get older. One study determined that only 28% of individuals who reported suffering from hearing loss had even had their hearing tested, let alone sought further treatment. For some folks, it’s like gray hair or wrinkles, just a part of growing old. Treating hearing loss has always been a bigger problem than diagnosing it, but with developments in modern hearing aid technology, that’s not the situation now. This is significant because your ability to hear isn’t the only health risk linked to hearing loss.
A study from a research group based at Columbia University adds to the documentation relating hearing loss to depression. They compiled data from over 5,000 adults aged 50 and up, giving each subject an audiometric hearing exam and also assessing them for symptoms of depression. After adjusting for a range of variables, the researchers found that the odds of having clinically significant symptoms of depression goes up by around 45% for every 20-decibel increase in hearing loss. And for the record, 20 dB is very little noise, it’s quieter than a whisper, roughly on par with the sound of rustling leaves.
The basic relationship between hearing loss and depression isn’t that surprising, but what is striking is how small a difference can so significantly increase the chance of suffering from depression. The fact that mental health worsens as hearing loss worsens is demonstrated by this research and a multi-year analysis from 2000, adding to a substantial body of literature linking the two. Another study from 2014 that revealed both individuals who self-reported problems hearing and who were found to have hearing loss according to hearing tests, had a substantially higher danger of depression.
The good news: The link that researchers suspect exists between hearing loss and depression isn’t biological or chemical. In all likelihood, it’s social. Difficulty hearing can cause feelings of anxiety and lead sufferers to stay away from social situations or even everyday conversations. This can increase social separation, which further leads to even more feelings of anxiety and depression. It’s a terrible cycle, but it’s also one that’s easily broken.
Multiple studies have found that treating hearing loss, typically with hearing aids, can help to reduce symptoms of depression. 1,000 individuals in their 70’s were studied in a 2014 study which couldn’t establish a cause and effect relationship between hearing loss and depression because it didn’t look over time, but it did show that those people were much more likely to experience depression symptoms if they had untreated hearing loss.
But the hypothesis that treating hearing loss reduces depression is reinforced by a more recent study that observed subjects before and after wearing hearing aids. A 2011 study only looked at a small group of people, 34 subjects altogether, the researchers found that after three months with hearing aids, all of them showed substantial improvement in both depressive symptoms and mental functioning. Another small-scale study from 2012 found the same results even further out, with every single person in the group continuing to experience less depression six months after beginning to use hearing aids. And in a study from 1992 that looked at a larger group of U.S. military veterans dealing with hearing loss, revealed that a full 12 months after beginning to use hearing aids, the vets were still experiencing less symptoms of depression.
Hearing loss is difficult, but you don’t have to go it alone. Get your hearing checked, and know about your options. It could benefit more than your hearing, it could positively impact your quality of life in ways you hadn’t even imagined.