Hearing Services of Nashville

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

About half of those over 70 and one in three U.S. adults are affected by age related loss of hearing. But despite its prevalence, only around 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!). At least 20 million Americans suffer from untreated loss of hearing depending on what research you look at; though some estimates put this closer to 30 million.

There are a number of justifications for why people might not seek treatment for hearing loss, particularly as they get older. (One study found that only 28% of people who said they suffered from loss of hearing had even had their hearing examined, and the majority didn’t seek out additional treatment. It’s simply part of growing old, for some individuals, like wrinkles or grey hair. Loss of hearing has long been easy to diagnose, but thanks to the considerable developments that have been made in the technology of hearing aids, it’s also a very manageable situation. That’s relevant because an increasing body of research shows that treating loss of hearing can help more than just your hearing.

A recent study from a Columbia research group adds to the body of knowledge linking hearing loss and depression.
They evaluate each subject for depression and administer an audiometric hearing examination. After a number of variables are considered, the researchers found that the odds of showing clinically substantial signs of depression increased by about 45% for every 20-decibel increase in loss of hearing. And for the record, 20 dB is very little noise. It’s quieter than a whisper, about on par with the sound of rustling leaves.

It’s surprising that such a little change in hearing generates such a large boost in the odds of experiencing depression, but the basic link isn’t shocking. This new study adds to the considerable established literature connecting loss of hearing and depression, like this multi-year analysis from 2000 which found that loss of hearing worsened in relation to a worsening of mental health, or this study 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 good news: it isn’t a chemical or biological link that researchers suspect exists between depression and hearing loss, it’s social. Difficulty hearing can cause feelings of anxiety and lead sufferers to avoid social situations or even everyday interactions. Social alienation can be the result, which further feeds into feelings of depression and anxiety. It’s a horrible cycle, but it’s also one that’s quickly broken.

The symptoms of depression can be alleviated by treating loss of hearing with hearing aids according to a few studies. A 2014 study that evaluated data from over 1,000 individuals in their 70s discovered that people who used hearing aids were significantly less more likely to experience symptoms of depression, though the authors did not establish a cause-and-effect relationship since they were not focusing on data over time.

However, the theory that treating loss of hearing with hearing aids can ease the symptoms of depression is backed up by other studies that looked at individuals before and after using hearing aids. Even though only a small cross section of people was looked at in this 2011 study, a total of 34, after just three months with hearing aids, according to the studies, they all displayed considerable improvement in both cognitive functioning and depressive symptoms. The same outcome was discovered from even further out by another small scale study from 2012, with every single individual in the sample continuing to have the symptoms of less depression six months after beginning to wear hearing aids. And in a study originating in 1992 that looked at a larger cluster of U.S. military veterans suffering from hearing loss found 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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