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 affected by age related loss of hearing. But in spite of its prevalence, only around 30% of older Americans who suffer from loss of hearing have ever used hearing aids (and that number goes down to 16% for those under the age of 69!). At least 20 million Americans are dealing with untreated hearing loss depending on what stats you look at; though some estimates put this closer to 30 million.

There are a number of justifications for why people may not get treatment for hearing loss, specifically as they get older. (One study found that only 28% of people even had their hearing checked, even though they said they suffered from hearing loss, much less sought additional treatment. For some people, it’s like grey hair or wrinkles, just part of aging. It’s been easy to diagnose loss of hearing for some time, but currently, due to technological improvements, we can also manage it. That’s significant because a developing body of data shows that treating loss of hearing can improve more than your hearing.

A recent study from a research group working from Columbia University, adds to the body of knowledge linking hearing loss and depression.
They examine each person for depression and give them an audiometric hearing test. After a range of variables are considered, the analysts found that the odds of having clinically significant signs or symptoms of depression climbed by around 45% for every 20-decibel increase in loss of hearing. And for the record, 20 dB is very little noise. It’s about as loud as leaves rustling and is quieter than a whisper.

It’s surprising that such a small change in hearing creates such a large boost in the odds of suffering from depression, but the basic link isn’t a shocker. There is a large body of literature on hearing loss and depression 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 research from 2014 that people had a significantly higher risk of depression when they were either diagnosed with hearing loss or self reported it.

Here’s the good news: it isn’t a chemical or biological connection that researchers suspect exists between depression and hearing loss, it’s social. Regular conversations and social situations are generally avoided due to anxiety due to difficulty hearing. This can increase social alienation, which further feeds into feelings of depression and anxiety. It’s a vicious cycle, but it’s also one that’s quickly disrupted.

Several researchers have found that treating hearing loss, usually with hearing aids, can help to reduce symptoms of depression. Over 1,000 people in their 70s were evaluated in a 2014 study that finding that people who used hearing aids were significantly less likely to have symptoms of depression, but because the authors didn’t consider the data over a period of time, they could not pinpoint a cause and effect relationship.

But other studies which followed individuals before and after getting hearing aids bears out the hypothesis that treating loss of hearing can assist in alleviating symptoms of depression. Though this 2011 study only investigated a small cluster of people, 34 people total, the analysts found that after only three months with hearing aids, they all showed considerable progress in both cognitive functioning and depressive symptoms. The same outcome was found from even further out by another small scale study from 2012, with every single individual in the small sample continuing to experience less depression six months after beginning to use hearing aids. Large groupings of U.S. veterans who suffered from loss of hearing were examined in a 1992 study that found that a full 12 months after starting to use hearing aids, fewer symptoms of depression were experienced by the vets.

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