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

Did you realize that age-related hearing impairment affects roughly one in three people between the ages of 65 and 74 (and roughly half of those are older than 75)? But even though so many people are impacted 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 whose numbers you look at, there are at least 20 million people dealing with neglected hearing loss, although some estimates put this closer to 30 million.

There are a variety of reasons why people might not get treatment for hearing loss, especially as they grow older. One study determined that only 28% of individuals who reported suffering from hearing loss had even had their hearing tested, let alone sought additional treatment. 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 substantial developments that have been made in hearing aid technology, it’s also a highly treatable condition. This is significant because your ability to hear is not the only health risk associated with hearing loss.

A Columbia University research group conducted a study that connected hearing loss to depression. They collected data from over 5,000 adults aged 50 and up, giving each subject an audiometric hearing test and also assessing them for symptoms of depression. After adjusting for a range of variables, the researchers revealed that the likelihood of having clinically significant symptoms of depression increased by around 45% for every 20-decibel increase in hearing loss. 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 generates 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 gets worse is demonstrated by this research and a multi-year analysis from 2000, expanding a substantial body of literature connecting the two. Another study from 2014 that found both people who self-reported trouble hearing and who were found to have hearing loss based on hearing tests, had a substantially higher risk of depression.

The good news: Researchers and scientists don’t think that it’s a chemical or biological connection that exists between hearing loss and depression. It’s probably social. Trouble hearing can cause feelings of stress and anxiety and lead sufferers to stay away from social interaction or even everyday conversations. This can increase social separation, which further feeds into feelings of depression and anxiety. But this vicious cycle can be broken fairly easily.

Multiple studies have revealed that treating hearing loss, most often with hearing aids, can help to alleviate symptoms of depression. 1,000 people in their 70’s were looked at in a 2014 study which couldn’t establish a cause and effect relationship between depression and hearing loss because it didn’t look over time, but it did show that those people were much more likely to experience depression symptoms if they had untreated hearing loss.

But other research, which followed subjects before and after getting hearing aids, bears out the theory that treating hearing loss can help reduce symptoms of depression. A 2011 study only looked at a small group of people, 34 subjects altogether, the researchers discovered that after three months with hearing aids, every one of them demonstrated considerable improvement in both depressive symptoms and cognitive functioning. And those results are long lasting as reported by a small-scale study conducted in 2012 which showed ongoing relief in depression symptoms for every single subject who used hearing aids as much as 6 months out. And even a full 12 months after beginning to use hearing aids, a group of veterans in a 1992 study were still noticing relief from depression symptoms.

It’s tough struggling with hearing loss but help is out there. Find out what your options are by having your hearing tested. It could benefit more than your hearing, it could positively affect your quality of life in ways you hadn’t even envisioned.

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