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

Are you aware that about one in three adults between the ages of 65 and 74 is affected by hearing impairment and half of them are over 75? But despite its prevalence, only around 30% of people who have hearing loss have ever used hearing aids (and that number drops to 16% for people under the age of 69! Depending on whose numbers you look at, there are at least 20 million individuals dealing with neglected hearing loss, although some estimates put this closer to 30 million.

As people get older, there might be a number of reasons why they would avoid getting help for their hearing loss. Only 28% of people who reported some degree of hearing loss actually got tested or looked into further treatment, according to one study. Many people just accept hearing loss as a standard part of the aging process. Managing hearing loss has always been a bigger problem than diagnosing it, but with developments in modern hearing aid technology, that isn’t the situation anymore. That’s important because a growing body of research shows that managing hearing loss can help more than just your hearing.

A study from a research group based at Columbia University adds to the documentation connecting hearing loss and depression. An audiometric hearing exam and a depression assessment were given to the over 5,000 individuals that they gathered data from. After adjusting for a range of variables, the researchers revealed that the likelihood of suffering with 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 around the volume of rustling leaves, for the record.

The basic connection between hearing loss and depression isn’t that surprising, but what is shocking is how small a difference can so dramatically increase the chance of suffering from depression. This new study adds to the sizable existing literature associating hearing loss and depression, like this multi-year analysis from 2000, which revealed that mental health worsened along with hearing loss. 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 significantly higher danger of depression.

The good news: Researchers and scientists don’t believe that it’s a biological or chemical connection that exists between hearing loss and depression. In all likelihood, it’s social. People who have hearing loss will frequently avoid social interaction because of anxiety and will even sometimes feel anxious about normal day-to-day situations. This can increase social isolation, which further leads to even more feelings of anxiety and depression. But this vicious cycle can be broken fairly easily.

Treating hearing loss, normally with hearing aids, according to numerous studies, will decrease symptoms of depression. 1,000 individuals in their 70’s were studied in a 2014 study which couldn’t establish a cause and effect relationship between hearing loss and depression because it didn’t look over time, but it did show that those people were much more likely to suffer from depression symptoms if they had untreated hearing loss.

But other research, which observed subjects before and after wearing hearing aids, reinforces 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, all of them demonstrated significant improvement in both depressive symptoms and cognitive functioning. And those results are long lasting according to a small-scale study carried out in 2012 which demonstrated ongoing relief in depression symptoms for every single subject who wore hearing aids as much as 6 months out. And even a full year after starting to use hearing aids, a group of veterans in a 1992 study were still experiencing relief from symptoms of depression.

It’s difficult struggling with hearing loss but help is out there. 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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