Man isolated and depressed in a cafe because he has hearing loss.

Did you know that age-related hearing loss impacts roughly one in three U.S. adults between 65 and 74 (and roughly half of those over 75)? But in spite of its prevalence, only about 30% of older Americans who suffer from hearing loss have ever used hearing aids (and for those younger than 60, the number goes down to 16%!). At least 20 million Americans are suffering from untreated loss of hearing depending on what data you look at; though some reports put this closer to 30 million.

There are a number of reasons why people might not get treatment for hearing loss, especially as they get older. (One study found that only 28% of people even had their hearing examined, though they said they suffered from hearing loss, let alone looked into additional treatment. It’s simply part of growing old, for many individuals, like grey hair or wrinkles. Hearing loss has long been easy to diagnose, but thanks to the considerable advancements that have been made in the technology of hearing aids, it’s also a very treatable condition. Significantly, more than just your hearing can be improved by managing loss of hearing, according to an increasing body of data.

A recent study from a Columbia research team adds to the literature connecting hearing loss and depression.
They give each participant an audiometric hearing test and also evaluate them for symptoms of depression. After a number of variables are considered, the researchers found that the odds of having clinically significant signs of depression climbed by about 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 rustling leaves and is quieter than a whisper.

It’s surprising that such a little change in hearing generates such a large boost in the odds of experiencing depression, but the basic link isn’t shocking. This new research adds to the considerable existing literature connecting hearing loss and depression, like this multi-year analysis from 2000 which found that mental health worsened along with hearing loss, or this study from 2014 that found that both individuals who reported having trouble hearing and who were discovered to suffer from loss of hearing based on hearing tests had a substantially higher chance of depression.

The good news is: the connection that researchers surmise exists between loss of hearing and depression isn’t chemical or biological, it’s social. Everyday interactions and social situations are often avoided because of the anxiety due to difficulty hearing. This can increase social isolation, which further feeds into feelings of depression and anxiety. It’s a pattern that is easily disrupted despite the fact that it’s a horrible one.

The symptoms of depression can be minimized by treating loss of hearing with hearing aids according to several studies. A 2014 study that investigated statistics from over 1,000 people in their 70s finding that individuals who used hearing aids were significantly less likely to experience symptoms of depression, but because the authors didn’t look at the data over time, they couldn’t establish a cause and effect relationship.

Nevertheless, the principle that dealing with hearing loss with hearing aids can help the symptoms of depression is born out by other studies that evaluated participants before and after using hearing aids. Although this 2011 study only investigated a small group of individuals, 34 subjects total, the researchers discovered that after only three months using hearing aids, they all showed considerable progress in both cognitive functioning and depressive symptoms. Another small-scale study from 2012 revealed the same outcomes even further out, with every single individual in the small sample continuing to experience less depression six months after beginning to wear hearing aids. And in a study from 1992 that observed a larger group of U.S. military veterans suffering from loss of hearing found that a full 12 months after starting to wear hearing aids, the vets were still experiencing fewer symptoms of depression.

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