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

Are you aware that about one in three people between the ages of 65 and 74 is impacted by hearing loss and half of them are older than 75? But even though so many people are affected by hearing loss, 70% of them have never used hearing aids and for those under the age of 69, that number drops to 16%. At least 20 million people suffer from neglected hearing loss and some reports put this number at over 30 million.

As people get older, there might be a number of reasons why they would avoid getting help for their hearing loss. One study found that only 28% of people who said they suffered from hearing loss had even gotten their hearing tested, never mind sought additional treatment. For some people, it’s like wrinkles or gray hair, just a part of growing old. Hearing loss has long been easy to diagnose, but thanks to the substantial advancements that have been made in hearing aid technology, it’s also a very treatable condition. That’s important because an increasing body of research demonstrates that managing hearing loss can improve more than your hearing.

A Columbia University research group performed a study that connected hearing loss to depression. They gathered data from over 5,000 people aged 50 and older, giving each subject an audiometric hearing exam and also evaluating them for symptoms of depression. 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 for the record, 20 dB is very little noise, it’s lower than a whisper, roughly on par with the sound of rustling leaves.

The basic connection between hearing loss and depression isn’t that surprising, but what is shocking is how small a difference can so drastically increase the likelihood of suffering from depression. The fact that mental health worsens as hearing loss worsens is demonstrated by this research and a multi-year investigation from 2000, adding to a sizable body of literature linking the two. In another study, a significantly higher risk of depression was reported in people who both self reported hearing loss and individuals whose hearing loss was diagnosed from a hearing exam.

Here’s the good news: Researchers and scientists don’t think that it’s a biological or chemical connection that exists between hearing loss and depression. It’s most likely social. Difficulty hearing can cause feelings of anxiety and lead sufferers to steer clear of social situations or even everyday conversations. This can increase social separation, which further feeds into feelings of anxiety and depression. It’s a terrible cycle, but it’s also one that’s broken easily.

Numerous studies have revealed that treating hearing loss, typically with hearing aids, can help to decrease symptoms of depression. A 2014 study that looked at data from over 1,000 individuals in their 70s found that those who wore hearing aids were significantly less likely to cope with symptoms of depression, though the authors did not determine a cause-and-effect relationship since they weren’t looking at data over time.

But the theory that treating hearing loss alleviates depression is bolstered by a more recent study that observed subjects before and after getting hearing aids. Only 34 individuals were examined in a 2011 study, but all of them showed substantial improvements in symptoms of depressions and also cognitive function after using hearing aids for 3 months. Another small-scale study from 2012 found the same results even further out, with every single individual in the sample continuing to notice less depression six months after beginning to use hearing aids. And in a study from 1992 that looked at a bigger group of U.S. military veterans coping with hearing loss, discovered that a full 12 months after beginning to use hearing aids, the vets were still noticing fewer symptoms of depression.

Hearing loss is difficult, but you don’t have to deal with it by yourself. Find out what your options are by having your hearing tested. Your hearing will be enhanced and so will your general quality of life.

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