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

Around half of those over 70 and one in three U.S. adults are affected by age related hearing loss. But in spite of its prevalence, only around 30% of older Americans who have loss of hearing have ever used hearing aids (and that number goes down to 16% for those under 69!). Dependant upon whose numbers you look at, there are at least 20 million Americans suffering from untreated loss of hearing; though some reports put this closer to 30 million.

There are a variety of justifications for why people may not seek treatment for hearing loss, specifically as they grow older. (One study found that just 28% of people even had their hearing examined, even though they reported suffering from loss of hearing, much less sought further treatment. It’s simply part of the aging process, for some people, like wrinkles or grey hair. Hearing loss has long been easy to diagnose, but thanks to the considerable improvements that have been accomplished in the technology of hearing aids, it’s also a very treatable condition. Notably, more than only your hearing can be helped by managing hearing loss, according to an expanding body of data.

A recent study from a Columbia research group connects hearing loss and depression adding to the body of literature.
They administer an audiometric hearing exam to each subject and also evaluate them for symptoms of depression. After a number of variables are considered, the analysts discovered that the odds of showing clinically substantial signs of depression climbed by around 45% for every 20-decibel increase in loss of hearing. And for the record, 20 dB is very little noise. It’s about the same as rustling leaves and is quieter than a whisper.

It’s amazing that such a slight difference in hearing yields such a large increase in the odds of being affected by depression, but the basic connection isn’t shocking. There is a large body of literature on depression and hearing loss 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 declining of mental health, or this research from 2014 that revealed that both individuals who reported having difficulty hearing and who were found to suffer from hearing loss based on hearing examinations had a considerably higher chance of depression.

Here’s the good news: it isn’t a chemical or biological connection that researchers surmise exists between depression and hearing loss, it’s social. Difficulty hearing can cause feelings of anxiety and lead sufferers to avoid social situations or even normal conversations. This can intensify social isolation, which further feeds into feelings of depression and anxiety. It’s a pattern that is easily broken even though it’s a horrible one.

Several studies have found that managing hearing loss, usually with hearing aids, can assist to relieve symptoms of depression. 2014 research examined data from over 1,000 people in their 70s revealing that people who used hearing aids were significantly less likely to experience symptoms of depression, though the authors didn’t establish a cause-and-effect connection since they weren’t investigating data over time.

Nevertheless, the principle that dealing with hearing loss with hearing aids can help 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 examined a small cluster of individuals, a total of 34, the analysts found that after only three months using hearing aids, all of them displayed considerable improvement in both depressive symptoms and cognitive functioning. The exact same outcome was found from even further out by another small scale study from 2012, with every single individual six months out from beginning to wear hearing aids, were still experiencing less depression. Large groupings of U.S. veterans who were suffering from hearing loss were evaluated in a 1992 study that discovered that a full 12 months after beginning to use hearing aids, fewer symptoms of depression were experienced by the vets.

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