HEARING TIPS

Reduction in Depression Linked to Hearing Aids

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

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

There are a variety of justifications for why people might not get treatment for hearing loss, specifically as they get older. (One study found that just 28% of people even had their hearing examined, though they reported suffering from loss of hearing, and the majority did not seek out additional treatment. For some people, it’s the same as getting wrinkles or gray hair, a normal part of aging. It’s been easy to diagnose loss of hearing for some time, but currently, due to technological advancements, we can also treat it. Significantly, more than just your hearing can be helped by treating hearing loss, according to an expanding body of research.

A recent study from a Columbia research group adds to the literature linking hearing loss and depression.
They evaluate each subject for depression and administer an audiometric hearing examination. After correcting for a range of variables, the analysts found that the odds of having clinically significant signs 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 quieter than a whisper, roughly the same as the sound of leaves rustling.

It’s surprising that such a small change in hearing generates such a big boost in the odds of being affected by depression, but the basic connection isn’t shocking. There is a large collection of literature on hearing loss and depression and this new study adds to that research, like this multi-year analysis from 2000 which found that mental health got worse along with hearing loss, or this research from 2014 that people had a dramatically higher chance of depression when they were either clinically diagnosed with loss of hearing or self reported it.

Here’s the good news: it isn’t a chemical or biological connection that researchers think exists between hearing loss and depression, it’s social. Difficulty hearing can cause feelings of anxiety and lead sufferers to avoid social situations or even normal interactions. This can intensify social alienation, which further feeds into feelings of depression and anxiety. It’s a cycle that is very easily broken despite the fact that it’s a horrible one.

Numerous researchers have found that managing loss of hearing, typically with hearing aids, can help to alleviate symptoms of depression. 2014 research evaluated data from over 1,000 individuals in their 70s finding that those who used hearing aids were significantly less more likely to have symptoms of depression, but because the authors didn’t consider the data over a period of time, they couldn’t pinpoint a cause and effect connection.

But other research that’s followed participants before and after getting hearing aids bears out the theory that managing hearing loss can assist in alleviating symptoms of depression. Even though only a small cross section of people was looked at in this 2011 study, 34 subjects total, the researchers found that after only three months using hearing aids, all of them revealed considerable progress in both depressive symptoms and cognitive functioning. Another small-scale study from 2012 discovered the exact same outcomes even further out, with every single person in the sample continuing to have the symptoms of less depression six months after beginning to use hearing aids. And in a study originating in 1992 that examined a larger cluster of U.S. military veterans suffering from hearing loss discovered that a full 12 months after starting to wear hearing aids, the vets were still having fewer symptoms of depression.

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