Did you know that age-related hearing impairment affects about one out of three people between the ages of 65 and 74 (and roughly half of those are over 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 those under the age of 69! At least 20 million people cope with untreated hearing loss and some reports put this number at over 30 million.
There are numerous reasons why people might not seek treatment for hearing loss, particularly as they get older. Only 28% of people who confirmed some degree of hearing loss actually got tested or looked into further treatment, according to one study. For some people, it’s like gray hair or wrinkles, just a part of growing old. Treating hearing loss has always been more of a problem than diagnosing it, but with improvements in modern hearing aid technology, that’s not the case anymore. This is significant because your ability to hear isn’t the only health hazard linked to hearing loss.
A Columbia University research group performed a study that linked hearing loss to depression. An audiometric hearing test and a depression screening were given to the over 5,000 individuals that they gathered data from. For every 20 decibels of increased hearing loss, the likelihood of dealing with significant depression rose by 45% according to these researchers after they took into account a range of variables. And 20 decibels is not very loud, it’s about the volume of rustling leaves, for the record.
The basic link between hearing loss and depression isn’t that surprising, but what is striking is how small a difference can so dramatically increase the chance of suffering from depression. This new study contributes to the sizable existing literature associating hearing loss and depression, like this multi-year analysis from 2000, which found that mental health worsened along with hearing loss. Another study from 2014 that found both people who self-reported problems hearing and who were found to have hearing loss according to hearing tests, had a significantly higher risk of depression.
The good news: The connection that researchers suspect exists between hearing loss and depression isn’t chemical or biological. In all likelihood, it’s social. Difficulty hearing can cause feelings of anxiety and lead sufferers to avoid social situations or even day-to-day conversations. This can increase social isolation, which further leads to even more feelings of depression and anxiety. But this vicious cycle can be broken fairly easily.
Numerous studies have revealed that treating hearing loss, typically with hearing aids, can help to alleviate symptoms of depression. A 2014 study that looked at data from more than 1,000 individuals in their 70s found that those who wore hearing aids were significantly less likely to suffer from symptoms of depression, although the authors did not define a cause-and-effect relationship since they weren’t looking at data over time.
But other research, which observed subjects before and after using hearing aids, reinforces the theory that treating hearing loss can help relieve symptoms of depression. A 2011 study only observed a small group of people, 34 subjects altogether, the researchers discovered that after three months with hearing aids, all of them demonstrated significant improvement in both depressive symptoms and cognitive functioning. 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 starting to use hearing aids. And in a study from 1992 that looked at a bigger group of U.S. military veterans dealing with hearing loss, found that a full 12 months after beginning to use hearing aids, the vets were still noticing reduced symptoms of depression.
Hearing loss is hard, but you don’t need to deal with it by yourself. Find out what your solutions are by having your hearing tested. It could benefit more than your hearing, it could positively impact your quality of life in ways you hadn’t even envisioned.