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 impacted by age related loss of hearing. But despite its prevalence, only around 30% of older Americans who suffer from loss of hearing have ever had hearing aids (and that number drops to 16% for those under the age of 69!). At least 20 million Americans are suffering from neglected hearing loss depending on what data you look at; though some estimates put this closer to 30 million.

As people get older, they overlook getting treatment for loss of hearing for a variety of considerations. (One study found that only 28% of people even had their hearing checked, though they reported suffering from loss of hearing, let alone looked into additional treatment. For some folks, it’s just like grey hair or wrinkles, just part of getting older. It’s been possible to diagnose hearing loss for a long time, but currently, due to technological advancements, we can also manage it. Significantly, more than just your hearing can be helped by treating hearing loss, according to a growing body of data.

A recent study from a research group based at Columbia University, adds to the literature linking loss of hearing and depression.
They examine each participant for depression and give them an audiometric hearing examination. After correcting for a range of factors, the researchers found that the odds of showing clinically significant symptoms of depression increased by approximately 45% for every 20-decibel increase in hearing loss. And to be clear, 20 dB is very little noise. It’s quieter than a whisper, approximately on par with the sound of leaves rustling.

The general connection isn’t shocking but it is surprising how quickly the odds of suffering from depression increase with only a small difference in sound. 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 got worse in relation to a worsening of mental health, or this study from 2014 that people had a dramatically higher chance of depression when they were either clinically diagnosed with hearing loss or self reported it.

The good news is: the connection that researchers suspect exists between hearing loss and depression isn’t chemical or biological, it’s social. Difficulty hearing can cause feelings of stress and anxiety and lead sufferers to stay away from social scenarios or even everyday conversations. This can increase social alienation, which further feeds into feelings of depression and anxiety. It’s a pattern that is very easily broken even though it’s a vicious one.

A wide variety of researchers have found that dealing with loss of hearing, usually using hearing aids, can assist to reduce symptoms of depression. 2014 research looked at data from over 1,000 people in their 70s discovered that those who used hearing aids were significantly less more likely to experience symptoms of depression, though the writers did not define a cause-and-effect connection since they were not focusing on data over time.

Nonetheless, the theory that managing hearing loss with hearing aids can relieve the symptoms of depression is born out by other studies that analyzed participants before and after using hearing aids. Even though this 2011 study only investigated a small group of individuals, a total of 34, the researchers found that after three months with hearing aids, they all displayed significant improvement in both depressive symptoms and cognitive functioning. Another minor study from 2012 uncovered the exact same results even further out, with every single individual in the small sample continuing to experience less depression six months after beginning to wear hearing aids. And in a study from 1992 that looked at a larger cluster of U.S. military veterans suffering from hearing loss 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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