Did you realize that age-related hearing impairment affects approximately one in three individuals between the ages of 65 and 74 (and about half of them are over 75)? But even though so many individuals are affected by hearing loss, 70% of them have never used hearing aids and for people under the age of 69, that number drops to 16%. Depending on which numbers you look at, there are at least 20 million people dealing with untreated hearing loss, although some estimates put this closer to 30 million.
As people get older, there may be a number of reasons why they would avoid getting help for their hearing loss. Only 28% of people who confirmed some amount of hearing loss actually got tested or sought further treatment, according to one study. 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 advancements in modern hearing aid technology, that isn’t the situation now. This is significant because your ability to hear is not the only health risk linked to hearing loss.
A Columbia University research group conducted a study that connected hearing loss to depression. They collected data from over 5,000 people aged 50 and up, giving each subject an audiometric hearing test and also evaluating them for symptoms of depression. After adjusting for a host of variables, the researchers found that the odds of suffering with clinically significant symptoms of depression increased by about 45% for every 20-decibel increase in hearing loss. 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 generates such a large increase in the chances of suffering from 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 revealed that mental health got worse along with hearing loss. In another study, a significantly higher risk of depression was reported in people who both self reported hearing loss and individuals whose hearing loss was diagnosed from a hearing exam.
Here’s the good news: The relationship that researchers suspect exists between hearing loss and depression isn’t chemical or biological. It’s most likely social. Individuals who have hearing loss will often avoid social situations because of anxiety and will even often feel anxious about normal day-to-day situations. The social separation that results, feeds into feelings of depression and anxiety. It’s a vicious cycle, but it’s also one that’s broken easily.
Several studies have found that treating hearing loss, most often with hearing aids, can help to ease symptoms of depression. 1,000 individuals in their 70’s were looked at 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 reveal that those people were much more likely to experience depression symptoms if they had neglected hearing loss.
But other research, that observed subjects before and after getting hearing aids, bears out the hypothesis that treating hearing loss can help reduce symptoms of depression. A 2011 study only looked at a small group of people, 34 subjects altogether, the researchers discovered that after three months with hearing aids, every one of them demonstrated considerable improvement in both depressive symptoms and cognitive functioning. 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 starting to use hearing aids. And even a full 12 months after starting to use hearing aids, a group of veterans in a 1992 study were still experiencing relief from depression symptoms.
It’s difficult struggling with hearing loss but help is out there. Get your hearing tested, and learn about your options. It could benefit more than your hearing, it might positively impact your quality of life in ways you hadn’t even imagined.