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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 around one in three U.S. adults between the ages of 65 and 74 (and around half of those over 75)? But despite its prevalence, only about 30% of older Americans who have loss of hearing have ever had hearing aids (and for those below the age of 60, the number falls to 16%!). At least 20 million Americans have 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 reasons why people might not get treatment for loss of hearing, particularly as they get older. (One study found that just 28% of people even had their hearing checked, even though they said they suffered from loss of hearing, much less sought additional treatment. It’s simply part of getting older, for many people, like grey hair or wrinkles. Hearing loss has long been easy to diagnose, but thanks to the considerable developments that have been accomplished in the technology of hearing aids, it’s also a highly treatable situation. Notably, more than just your hearing can be helped by treating loss of hearing, according to an increasing body of research.

A recent study from a research team based at Columbia University, adds to the literature associating loss of hearing and depression.
They give each participant an audiometric hearing test and also examine them for signs of depression. After adjusting for a range of factors, the researchers discovered that the odds of showing clinically significant symptoms of depression increased 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 on par with the sound of leaves rustling.

The basic connection isn’t astonishing but it is striking how fast the odds of being affected by depression increase with only a slight difference in sound. There is a large body of literature on depression and hearing loss and this new study adds to that research, 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 dramatically higher risk of depression when they were either diagnosed with hearing loss or self reported it.

The plus side is: it isn’t a biological or chemical link that researchers surmise exists between hearing loss and depression, it’s social. Problems hearing can cause feelings of stress and anxiety and lead sufferers to avoid social situations or even everyday interactions. Social isolation can be the result, which further feeds into feelings of depression and anxiety. It’s a vicious cycle, but it’s also one that’s easily disrupted.

The symptoms of depression can be alleviated by treating loss of hearing with hearing aids according to several studies. More than 1,000 people in their 70s were evaluated in a 2014 study that finding that people who used hearing aids were significantly less more likely to experience symptoms of depression, though the writers did not establish a cause-and-effect relationship since they were not considering statistics over time.

However, the concept that managing loss of hearing with hearing aids can ease the symptoms of depression is born out by other studies that evaluated participants before and after using hearing aids. Even though this 2011 study only investigated a small cluster of individuals, 34 people total, after just three months with hearing aids, according to the studies, they all revealed significant progress in both depressive symptoms and cognitive functioning. The same outcome was found from even further out by another small scale study from 2012, with every single individual in the small sample continuing to experience less depression six months prior to beginning to wear hearing aids. And in a study originating in 1992 that examined a larger group of U.S. military veterans suffering from hearing loss discovered that a full 12 months after beginning to wear hearing aids, fewer symptoms of depression were experienced by the vets.

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