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

Did you know that age-related hearing impairment impacts around one in three people between the ages of 65 and 74 (and about half of those are over 75)? But in spite of its prevalence, only about 30% of individuals who have hearing loss have ever used hearing aids (and that number drops to 16% for those under the age of 69! Depending on which numbers you look at, there are at least 20 million individuals suffering from neglected hearing loss, although some estimates put this closer to 30 million.

There are a number of reasons why people might not seek treatment for hearing loss, especially as they grow older. Only 28% of people who reported some amount of hearing loss actually got tested or sought further treatment, according to one study. Many individuals just accept hearing loss as a normal part of getting older. Hearing loss has long been easy to diagnose, but thanks to the substantial improvements that have been made in hearing aid technology, it’s also a very treatable condition. That’s relevant because an increasing body of research demonstrates that managing hearing loss can improve more than your hearing.

A Columbia University research group carried out a study that connected hearing loss to depression. They compiled data from over 5,000 adults aged 50 and older, giving each subject an audiometric hearing exam and also evaluating them for signs of depression. After correcting for a range of variables, the researchers revealed that the odds of having clinically significant symptoms of depression goes up by around 45% for every 20-decibel increase in hearing loss. And for the record, 20 dB is very little noise, it’s quieter than a whisper, roughly on par with the sound of rustling leaves.

It’s surprising that such a little difference in hearing produces such a significant increase in the odds of suffering from depression, but the basic link isn’t a shock. This new study expands 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. In another study, a considerably 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.

The good news: Researchers and scientists don’t think that it’s a chemical or biological relationship that exists between hearing loss and depression. In all likelihood, it’s social. Individuals who have hearing loss will frequently steer clear of social interaction due to anxiety and will even sometimes feel anxious about normal day-to-day situations. The social separation that results, feeds into feelings of depression and anxiety. It’s a vicious cycle, but it’s also one that’s broken easily.

Numerous studies have found that treating hearing loss, typically with hearing aids, can help to ease symptoms of depression. A 2014 study that looked at data from over 1,000 people in their 70s found that those who wore hearing aids were considerably less likely to experience symptoms of depression, although the authors did not define a cause-and-effect relationship since they weren’t viewing the data over time.

But the theory that treating hearing loss reduces depression is bolstered by a more recent study that observed subjects before and after getting hearing aids. Only 34 people were examined in a 2011 study, but all of them showed substantial improvements in depression symptoms and also mental function after wearing hearing aids for 3 months. And those results are long lasting according to a small-scale study carried out in 2012 which showed continuing relief in depression symptoms for every single subject who used hearing aids as much as 6 months out. And in a study from 1992 that observed a larger group of U.S. military veterans suffering from hearing loss, revealed that a full 12 months after beginning to use hearing aids, the vets were still experiencing fewer symptoms of depression.

Hearing loss is hard, but you don’t need to go it alone. Get your hearing checked, and learn about your options. It could help improve more than your hearing, it might positively impact your quality of life in ways you hadn’t even imagined.

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