Did you realize that age-related hearing loss impacts around one out of three people between the ages of 65 and 74 (and roughly half of them are older than 75)? But in spite of its prevalence, only around 30% of individuals who have hearing loss have ever used hearing aids (and that number goes down to 16% for people under the age of 69! Depending on whose numbers you look at, there are at least 20 million individuals dealing with untreated hearing loss, though some estimates put this closer to 30 million.
There are numerous reasons why people might not get treatment for hearing loss, especially as they grow older. One study determined that only 28% of people who said they suffered from hearing loss had even had their hearing examined, never mind sought additional treatment. For some people, 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 improvements in modern hearing aid technology, that isn’t 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 out of Columbia University adds to the literature relating hearing loss to depression. An audiometric hearing test and a depression assessment were given to the over 5,000 individuals that they compiled data from. For every 20 decibels of increased hearing loss, the chances of dealing with significant depression rose by 45% according to these researchers after they took into account a host of variables. And 20 decibels isn’t very loud, it’s about the volume of rustling leaves, for the record.
It’s surprising that such a little difference in hearing creates such a large increase in the odds of suffering from depression, but the basic relationship isn’t a shock. 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. Another study from 2014 that revealed both individuals 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: The link that researchers surmise exists between hearing loss and depression isn’t biological or chemical. In all likelihood, it’s social. People who have hearing loss will often steer clear of social situations because of anxiety and will even sometimes feel anxious about normal day-to-day situations. This can increase social isolation, which further feeds into feelings of depression and anxiety. But this vicious cycle can be broken fairly easily.
Several studies have found that treating hearing loss, most often with hearing aids, can help to reduce symptoms of depression. 1,000 people in their 70’s were looked at in a 2014 study which couldn’t determine a cause and effect relationship between hearing loss and depression because it didn’t look over time, but it did show that those individuals were far more likely to suffer from depression symptoms if they had neglected hearing loss.
But other research, that observed subjects before and after using hearing aids, bears out the theory that treating hearing loss can help alleviate symptoms of depression. A 2011 study only looked at a small group of people, 34 subjects total, the researchers found that after three months with hearing aids, all of them demonstrated substantial improvement in both depressive symptoms and mental functioning. Another small-scale study from 2012 found the same results even further out, with every single person in the group continuing to notice less depression six months after starting to use hearing aids. And even a full 12 months after beginning to use hearing aids, a group of veterans in a 1992 study were still experiencing relief from depression symptoms.
Hearing loss is difficult, but you don’t have to go it alone. Get your hearing tested, and know about your options. It could benefit more than your hearing, it could positively impact your quality of life in ways you hadn’t even envisioned.