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

Did you realize that age-related hearing loss affects roughly one in three U.S. adults between 65 and 74 (and around half of those over 75)? But despite its prevalence, only about 30% of older Americans who suffer from loss of hearing have ever used hearing aids (and that figure drops to 16% for those under the age of 69!). Dependant upon whose figures you look at, there are at least 20 million Americans who suffer from neglected hearing loss; though some estimates put this closer to 30 million.

There are a number of justifications for why people may not get treatment for hearing loss, specifically as they grow older. (One study found that only 28% of people who said they had loss of hearing had even had their hearing checked, let alone looked into additional treatment. It’s simply part of aging, for some individuals, like grey hair or wrinkles. It’s been easy to diagnose loss of hearing for some time, but currently, thanks to technological developments, we can also manage it. That’s significant because an increasing body of data shows that treating hearing loss can improve more than your hearing.

A recent study from a Columbia research team connects hearing loss and depression adding to the body of literature.
They administer an audiometric hearing exam to each participant and also evaluate them for symptoms of depression. After correcting for a range of factors, the researchers found that the odds of having clinically significant symptoms of depression climbed by about 45% for every 20-decibel increase in loss of hearing. And to be clear, 20 dB is very little noise. It’s quieter than a whisper, roughly the same as the sound of rustling leaves.

The general connection isn’t shocking but it is surprising how fast the odds of being affected by depression increase with only a slight difference in sound. This new research adds to the sizable established literature connecting loss of hearing and depression, like this multi-year analysis from 2000 which found that mental health worsened alongside hearing loss, or this study from 2014 that people had a significantly higher chance of depression when they were either diagnosed with loss of hearing or self reported it.

Here’s the good news: the connection that researchers surmise exists between loss of hearing and depression isn’t chemical or biological, it’s social. Difficulty hearing can cause feelings of stress and anxiety and lead sufferers to stay away from social situations or even everyday conversations. Social isolation can be the result, which further feeds into feelings of depression and anxiety. It’s a pattern that is easily disrupted even though it’s a horrible one.

The symptoms of depression can be eased by treating hearing loss with hearing aids according to a few studies. A 2014 study that evaluated data from over 1,000 people in their 70s discovered that those who used hearing aids were significantly less more likely to experience symptoms of depression, but because the authors didn’t examine the data over time, they could not establish a cause and effect relationship.

Nevertheless, the concept that treating hearing loss with hearing aids can help the symptoms of depression is backed up by other research that looked at individuals before and after using hearing aids. Although only a small cross section of people was looked at in this 2011 research, 34 subjects total, the analysts found that after only three months using hearing aids, all of them displayed considerable progress in both depressive symptoms and cognitive functioning. The exact same outcome was discovered from even further out by another minor study from 2012, with every single person six months out from beginning to use hearing aids, were still experiencing less depression. Large groups of U.S. veterans who suffered from loss of hearing were looked at in a 1992 study that discovered that a full 12 months after beginning to use hearing aids, the vets were still suffering from fewer symptoms of depression.

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