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

Did you know that age-related hearing loss affects about one in three individuals between the ages of 65 and 74 (and about half of them are older than 75)? But despite its prevalence, only around 30% of those who have hearing loss have ever used hearing aids (and that number drops to 16% for those under the age of 69! At least 20 million people cope with untreated hearing loss and some reports put this number at over 30 million.

There are numerous reasons why people may not seek treatment for hearing loss, especially as they grow older. One study found that only 28% of individuals who reported suffering from hearing loss had even gotten their hearing tested, let alone sought additional treatment. Many people just accept hearing loss as a standard part of the aging process. Treating hearing loss has always been a bigger problem than diagnosing it, but with advancements in modern hearing aid technology, that isn’t the situation now. This is significant because your ability to hear isn’t the only health risk associated with hearing loss.

A study from a research group based out of Columbia University adds to the documentation linking hearing loss to depression. They compiled data from over 5,000 people aged 50 and older, giving each subject an audiometric hearing exam and also evaluating them for signs of depression. After correcting for a host of variables, the researchers revealed that the odds of having clinically significant symptoms of depression increased by about 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, approximately 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 raise the likelihood of suffering from depression. The fact that mental health gets worse as hearing loss gets worse is demonstrated by this research and a multi-year analysis from 2000, adding to a substantial body of literature linking the two. In another study, a considerably higher danger of depression was reported in people who both self reported hearing loss and people whose hearing loss was diagnosed from a hearing test.

Here’s the good news: Researchers and scientists don’t believe that it’s a biological or chemical link that exists between hearing loss and depression. In all likelihood, it’s social. Difficulty hearing can lead to feelings of anxiety and lead sufferers to steer clear of social situations or even day to day conversations. This can increase social separation, which further feeds into feelings of anxiety and depression. It’s a vicious cycle, but it’s also one that’s broken easily.

Treating hearing loss, in most cases with hearing aids, according to several studies, will reduce symptoms of depression. A 2014 study that looked at data from more than 1,000 individuals in their 70s found that those who used hearing aids were considerably less likely to suffer from symptoms of depression, although the authors did not determine a cause-and-effect relationship since they weren’t viewing the data over time.

But other research, that followed subjects before and after using hearing aids, reinforces the hypothesis that treating hearing loss can help reduce symptoms of depression. A 2011 study only looked at a small group of people, 34 subjects altogether, the researchers found that after three months with hearing aids, all of them showed substantial improvement in both depressive symptoms and mental functioning. Another small-scale study from 2012 revealed the same results even further out, with every single individual in the sample continuing to notice less depression six months after beginning to wear hearing aids. And even a full 12 months after beginning to use hearing aids, a group of veterans in a 1992 study were still noticing relief from symptoms of depression.

It’s difficult struggling with hearing loss but help is out there. Get your hearing checked, and learn about your solutions. It could help improve more than your hearing, it could positively impact your quality of life in ways you hadn’t even envisioned.

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