Did you know that age-related hearing loss impacts approximately one out of three adults between the ages of 65 and 74 (and roughly half of them are over 75)? But even though so many individuals are impacted 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 individuals suffering from neglected hearing loss, although some estimates put this closer to 30 million.
There are numerous reasons why people might not get treatment for hearing loss, especially as they get older. One study determined that only 28% of individuals who said they suffered from hearing loss had even had their hearing examined, let alone sought further treatment. For some folks, it’s like gray hair or wrinkles, just a part of aging. Treating hearing loss has always been a bigger problem than diagnosing it, but with advancements in modern hearing aid technology, that’s not the case now. This is significant because your ability to hear is not the only health hazard linked to hearing loss.
A study from a research group based at Columbia University adds to the documentation linking hearing loss to depression. They collected data from over 5,000 adults aged 50 and up, giving each subject an audiometric hearing exam and also evaluating them for symptoms of depression. After correcting for a host of variables, the researchers found that the likelihood of having clinically significant symptoms of depression goes up by about 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, approximately equal to the sound of rustling leaves.
It’s surprising that such a little difference in hearing creates such a large increase in the chances of suffering from depression, but the basic relationship isn’t a shocker. This new study adds to the substantial existing literature associating hearing loss and depression, like this multi-year analysis from 2000, which revealed that mental health got worse along with hearing loss. Another study from 2014 that revealed both people who self-reported trouble hearing and who were found to have hearing loss based on hearing tests, had a significantly higher risk of depression.
Here’s the good news: Researchers and scientists don’t believe that it’s a chemical or biological relationship that exists between hearing loss and depression. More than likely, it’s social. Individuals with hearing loss will frequently steer clear of social situations because of anxiety and will even sometimes feel anxious about typical day-to-day situations. This can increase social isolation, which further leads to even more feelings of anxiety and depression. But this vicious cycle can be broken fairly easily.
Treating hearing loss, in most cases with hearing aids, according to numerous studies, will reduce symptoms of depression. A 2014 study that looked at data from over 1,000 individuals in their 70s discovered that those who used hearing aids were considerably less likely to cope with symptoms of depression, although the authors did not define a cause-and-effect relationship since they weren’t looking at data over time.
But the theory that treating hearing loss reduces depression is reinforced by a more recent study that followed subjects before and after wearing hearing aids. Only 34 people were assessed in a 2011 study, but all of them showed significant improvements in symptoms of depressions and also mental function after wearing hearing aids for 3 months. Another small-scale study from 2012 found the same results even further out, with every single individual in the group continuing to experience less depression six months after beginning to use hearing aids. And in a study from 1992 that observed a bigger group of U.S. military veterans suffering from hearing loss, revealed that a full 12 months after starting to use hearing aids, the vets were still noticing less symptoms of depression.
It’s tough struggling with hearing loss but help is out there. Get your hearing examined, and know about your options. Your hearing will be enhanced and so will your general quality of life.