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

Did you know that age-related loss of hearing impacts roughly one in three U.S. adults between 65 and 74 (and around half of those over 75)? But in spite of its prevalence, only about 30% of older Americans who have hearing loss have ever used hearing aids (and that number goes down to 16% for those under 69!). At least 20 million Americans are dealing with untreated loss of hearing depending on what figures you look at; though some estimates put this closer to 30 million.

As people get older, they overlook getting treatment for hearing loss for a variety of considerations. (One study found that only 28% of people even had their hearing checked, though they said they suffered from loss of hearing, and the majority did not seek out additional treatment. For some people, it’s like grey hair or wrinkles, just part of getting older. It’s been easy to diagnose loss of hearing for some time, but now, due to technological advancements, we can also manage it. Significantly, more than only your hearing can be helped by treating hearing loss, according to an increasing body of research.

A recent study from a Columbia research group adds to the literature linking loss of hearing and depression.
They give each subject an audiometric hearing exam and also examine them for symptoms of depression. After adjusting for a number of variables, the analysts discovered that the odds of showing clinically significant signs or symptoms of depression increased by approximately 45% for every 20-decibel increase in hearing loss. And to be clear, 20 dB is very little noise. It’s about as loud as leaves rustling and is quieter than a whisper.

It’s surprising that such a slight difference in hearing generates such a big increase in the odds of experiencing depression, but the basic link isn’t shocking. This new study 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 dramatically higher chance of depression when they were either clinically diagnosed with hearing loss or self reported it.

Here’s the plus side: it isn’t a chemical or biological connection that researchers think 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 pattern that is easily disrupted despite the fact that it’s a horrible one.

A wide variety of studies have found that managing loss of hearing, most often using hearing aids, can assist to lessen symptoms of depression. A 2014 study that examined data from over 1,000 people in their 70s finding that those who used hearing aids were significantly less more likely to experience symptoms of depression, though the writers did not determine a cause-and-effect connection since they weren’t observing statistics over time.

But other research that’s followed individuals before and after getting hearing aids bears out the theory that dealing with hearing loss can help alleviate symptoms of depression. Although only a small cross section of people was looked at in this 2011 research, a total of 34, after just three months using hearing aids, according to the studies, they all displayed significant improvement in both cognitive functioning and depressive symptoms. Another small-scale study from 2012 discovered the exact same results even further out, with every single person six months out from beginning to wear hearing aids, were still experiencing less depression. Large groups of U.S. veterans who suffered from loss of hearing were examined in a 1992 study that discovered that a full 12 months after beginning to use hearing aids, fewer symptoms of depression were experienced by the vets.

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