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 loss of hearing. But in spite of its prevalence, only about 30% of older Americans who have hearing loss have ever used hearing aids (and that figure goes down to 16% for those under 69!). Dependant upon whose data you look at, there are at least 20 million Americans suffering from untreated hearing loss; 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, especially as they get older. (One study found that just 28% of people even had their hearing tested, even though they reported suffering from hearing loss, much less looked into additional treatment. It’s simply part of growing old, for many people, like grey hair or wrinkles. Hearing loss has been easy to diagnose for a long time, but due to the significant improvements that have been made in the technology of hearing aids, it’s also a very treatable situation. That’s significant because a developing body of research reveals that treating loss of hearing can help more than your hearing.

A recent study from a Columbia research group adds to the literature associating loss of hearing and depression.
They give each subject an audiometric hearing test and also assess them for signs of depression. After adjusting for a number of factors, the researchers found that the odds of having clinically significant 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, about on par with the sound of leaves rustling.

It’s amazing that such a slight difference in hearing generates such a significant increase in the odds of experiencing depression, but the basic connection isn’t a shocker. This new study adds to the considerable existing literature linking loss of hearing and depression, like this multi-year analysis from 2000 which found that mental health got worse along with hearing loss, or this paper from 2014 that found that both people who reported having difficulty hearing and who were found to suffer from loss of hearing based on hearing tests had a substantially higher risk of depression.

The plus side is: it isn’t a chemical or biological connection that researchers suspect exists between depression and hearing loss, it’s social. Normal conversations and social situations are generally avoided due to anxiety due to problems hearing. Social isolation can be the result, which further feeds into feelings of depression and anxiety. It’s a pattern that is very easily disrupted despite the fact that it’s a horrible one.

Numerous researchers have found that managing loss of hearing, most often with hearing aids, can assist to reduce symptoms of depression. Over 1,000 people in their 70s were evaluated in a 2014 study that revealing that people who used hearing aids were significantly less more likely to experience symptoms of depression, but due to the fact that the authors didn’t evaluate the data over time, they couldn’t determine a cause and effect connection.

But other studies which followed subjects before and after getting hearing aids re-affirms the proposal that treating loss of hearing can assist in alleviating symptoms of depression. Although only a small group of people was looked at in this 2011 study, a total of 34, the analysts discovered that after three months with hearing aids, they all revealed considerable progress in both cognitive functioning and depressive symptoms. Another minor study from 2012 revealed the exact same results even further out, with every single individual in the sample continuing to experience less depression six months after beginning to use hearing aids. And in a study from 1992 that looked at a larger cluster of U.S. military veterans suffering from loss of hearing discovered that a full 12 months after starting to use hearing aids, fewer symptoms of depression were experienced by the vets.

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