Audio Life Hearing Center- Knoxville, TN

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 despite its prevalence, only around 30% of older Americans who suffer from hearing loss have ever had hearing aids (and for those under the age of 60, the number drops to 16%!). At least 20 million Americans are suffering from untreated hearing loss depending on what statistics you look at; though some reports put this closer to 30 million.

As people grow older, they neglect seeking treatment for hearing loss for a variety of considerations. (One study found that only 28% of people who said that they had loss of hearing had even had their hearing checked, much less sought additional treatment. For some individuals, it’s like wrinkles or gray hair, just part of growing old. Hearing loss has long been easy to diagnose, but thanks to the substantial improvements that have been accomplished in hearing aid technology, it’s also a highly treatable condition. Notably, more than just your hearing can be improved by treating loss of hearing, according to an expanding body of data.

A recent study from a Columbia research group connects depression and loss of hearing adding to the body of literature.
They administer an audiometric hearing exam to each participant and also assess them for symptoms of depression. After a number of variables are taken into account, the researchers found that the odds of having clinically substantial symptoms of depression climbed by around 45% for every 20-decibel increase in loss of hearing. And to be clear, 20 dB is very little noise. It’s about as loud as rustling leaves and is quieter than a whisper.

The basic connection isn’t astonishing but it is surprising how rapidly the odds of suffering from depression go up with only a small difference in sound. This new research adds to the substantial existing literature connecting hearing loss and depression, like this multi-year analysis from 2000 which found that hearing loss worsened in relation to a worsening of mental health, or this paper from 2014 that people had a significantly higher chance of depression when they were either diagnosed with hearing loss or self reported it.

Here’s the plus side: the connection that researchers think is present between hearing loss and depression isn’t chemical or biological, it’s social. Problems hearing can cause feelings of anxiety and lead sufferers to avoid social situations or even everyday interactions. Social isolation can be the result, which further feeds into feelings of depression and anxiety. It’s a vicious cycle, but it’s also one that’s easily disrupted.

The symptoms of depression can be minimized by treating loss of hearing with hearing aids according to a few studies. A 2014 study that evaluated statistics from over 1,000 individuals in their 70s revealing that people who used hearing aids were significantly less likely to experience symptoms of depression, though the writers didn’t define a cause-and-effect relationship since they were not looking into data over time.

But other research that’s followed people before and after using hearing aids re-affirms the theory that treating hearing loss can help alleviate symptoms of depression. Even though only a small cross section of people was looked at in this 2011 research, a total of 34, after just three months with hearing aids, according to the research, all of them revealed considerable progress in both depressive symptoms and cognitive functioning. Another small-scale study from 2012 uncovered the same results even further out, with every single individual in the small sample continuing to experience less depression six months after starting to use hearing aids. And in a study originating in 1992 that observed a larger cluster of U.S. military veterans suffering from loss of hearing found that a full 12 months after beginning to wear hearing aids, the vets were still having fewer symptoms of depression.

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