Did you realize that age-related hearing impairment affects roughly one out of three people between the ages of 65 and 74 (and roughly half of them are over 75)? But even though so many people are affected by hearing loss, 70% of them have never used hearing aids and for those under the age of 69, that number drops to 16%. Depending on which numbers you look at, there are at least 20 million individuals dealing with untreated hearing loss, although some estimates put this closer to 30 million.
As people get older, there could be several reasons why they would avoid getting help for their hearing loss. Only 28% of people who confirmed some degree of hearing loss actually got tested or sought further treatment, according to one study. Many individuals just accept hearing loss as a standard part of the aging process. Hearing loss has long been easy to diagnose, but thanks to the considerable improvements that have been made in hearing aid technology, it’s also a highly manageable condition. That’s important because a growing body of research demonstrates that treating hearing loss can help more than your hearing.
A Columbia University research group carried out a study that linked hearing loss to depression. An audiometric hearing exam and a depression screening were given to the over 5,000 people that they compiled data from. After adjusting for a host of variables, the researchers found that the odds of having clinically significant symptoms of depression increased by about 45% for every 20-decibel increase in hearing loss. And for the record, 20 dB is very little noise, it’s lower than a whisper, approximately on par with the sound of rustling leaves.
The basic relationship between hearing loss and depression isn’t that surprising, but what is shocking is how small a difference can so significantly increase the likelihood of suffering from depression. The fact that mental health worsens as hearing loss gets worse is demonstrated by this research and a multi-year investigation from 2000, expanding a substantial body of literature connecting the two. Another study from 2014 that revealed both people who self-reported trouble hearing and who were found to have hearing loss according to hearing tests, had a substantially higher danger of depression.
Here’s the good news: Researchers and scientists don’t believe that it’s a biological or chemical link that exists between hearing loss and depression. More than likely, it’s social. People who have hearing loss will often steer clear of social interaction due to anxiety and will even often feel anxious about standard day-to-day situations. This can increase social separation, which further feeds into feelings of anxiety and depression. But this vicious cycle can be broken fairly easily.
Treating hearing loss, usually with hearing aids, according to multiple studies, will lessen 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 experience symptoms of depression, even though the authors did not identify a cause-and-effect relationship since they weren’t viewing the data over time.
But the hypothesis that treating hearing loss alleviates depression is bolstered by a more recent study that observed subjects before and after getting hearing aids. A 2011 study only looked at a small group of people, 34 subjects altogether, the researchers found that after three months with hearing aids, every one of them demonstrated considerable improvement in both depressive symptoms and mental functioning. Another small-scale study from 2012 revealed the same results even further out, with every single person in the sample continuing to experience less depression six months after starting to use hearing aids. And in a study from 1992 that looked at a larger group of U.S. military veterans suffering from hearing loss, found that a full 12 months after beginning to use hearing aids, the vets were still noticing less symptoms of depression.
Hearing loss is hard, but you don’t need to deal with it by yourself. Get your hearing checked, 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.