Woman embracing man with hearing loss in park because he is feeling depressed.

Did you realize that age-related hearing impairment affects around one in three individuals between the ages of 65 and 74 (and about half of those are over 75)? But even though so many people are affected 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 people dealing with neglected hearing loss, though some estimates put this closer to 30 million.

There are numerous reasons why people may not get treatment for hearing loss, particularly as they grow older. One study determined that only 28% of individuals who said they suffered from hearing loss had even gotten their hearing examined, let alone sought additional treatment. For some people, it’s like gray hair or wrinkles, just a part of aging. Treating hearing loss has always been more of a problem than diagnosing it, but with developments in modern hearing aid technology, that’s not the case now. That’s important because a growing body of research indicates that treating hearing loss can improve more than your hearing.

A Columbia University research group conducted a study that linked hearing loss to depression. They compiled data from over 5,000 adults aged 50 and up, giving each subject an audiometric hearing exam and also evaluating them for signs of depression. After correcting for a range of variables, the researchers found that the odds of having clinically significant symptoms of depression increased by around 45% for every 20-decibel increase in hearing loss. And 20 decibels is not very loud, it’s around the volume of rustling leaves, for the record.

It’s surprising that such a small difference in hearing produces such a large increase in the likelihood of suffering from depression, but the basic link isn’t a shocker. The fact that mental health gets worse as hearing loss worsens is demonstrated by this research and a multi-year analysis from 2000, expanding a substantial body of literature connecting the two. In another study, a significantly higher danger of depression was reported in people who both self reported hearing loss and people whose hearing loss was diagnosed from a hearing test.

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. In all likelihood, it’s social. Individuals with hearing loss will often avoid social situations due to anxiety and will even sometimes feel anxious about typical day-to-day situations. This can increase social isolation, which further feeds into feelings of anxiety and depression. But this vicious cycle can be broken fairly easily.

Numerous studies have found that treating hearing loss, typically with hearing aids, can help to relieve symptoms of depression. 1,000 individuals in their 70’s were looked at in a 2014 study which couldn’t determine a cause and effect relationship between depression and hearing loss because it didn’t look over time, but it did reveal that those people were far more likely to suffer from depression symptoms if they had untreated hearing loss.

But the theory that treating hearing loss reduces depression is reinforced by a more recent study that observed subjects before and after wearing hearing aids. A 2011 study only looked at a small group of people, 34 subjects total, the researchers discovered that after three months with hearing aids, all of them showed substantial improvement in both depressive symptoms and cognitive functioning. And those results are long lasting according to a small-scale study conducted in 2012 which demonstrated continuing relief in depression symptoms for every single subject who wore hearing aids as much as 6 months out. And even a full 12 months after starting to use hearing aids, a group of veterans in a 1992 study were still noticing relief from symptoms of depression.

It’s difficult dealing with hearing loss but help is out there. Learn what your options are by getting a hearing test. It could benefit more than your hearing, it might positively impact your quality of life in ways you hadn’t even envisioned.

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