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Hearing Aids by Tricia Leagjeld - Redmond, OR

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

Around 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 have hearing loss have ever had hearing aids (and for those under 60, the number drops to 16%!). Dependant upon whose figures you look at, there are at least 20 million Americans who suffer from untreated loss of hearing; though some reports put this closer to 30 million.

There are a variety of reasons why people might not seek treatment for hearing loss, particularly as they grow older. (One study found that only 28% of people even had their hearing tested, even though they said they suffered from loss of hearing, much less looked into further treatment. It’s simply part of the aging process, for many people, like grey hair or wrinkles. It’s been easy to diagnose hearing loss for some time, but now, thanks to technological improvements, we can also manage it. Significantly, more than only your hearing can be improved by treating hearing loss, according to an increasing body of data.

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

It’s amazing that such a small change in hearing produces such a big increase in the odds of being affected by depression, but the basic connection isn’t a shocker. There is a large collection 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 declining of mental health, or this research from 2014 that people had a significantly higher risk of depression when they were either diagnosed with loss of hearing or self reported it.

The plus side is: it isn’t a chemical or biological connection that researchers think exists between hearing loss and depression, it’s social. Normal conversations and social scenarios are generally avoided because of the anxiety due to problems hearing. This can intensify social isolation, which further feeds into feelings of depression and anxiety. It’s a pattern that is easily disrupted despite the fact that it’s a vicious one.

The symptoms of depression can be minimized by treating hearing loss with hearing aids according to several studies. A 2014 study that looked at data from over 1,000 individuals in their 70s finding that individuals who used hearing aids were significantly less more likely to experience symptoms of depression, but due to the fact that the authors didn’t examine the data over a period of time, they could not pinpoint a cause and effect relationship.

Nevertheless, the principle that managing hearing loss with hearing aids can ease the symptoms of depression is born out by other research that analyzed participants before and after getting hearing aids. Even though only a small cross section of people was looked at in this 2011 research, a total of 34, after just three months with hearing aids, according to the studies, they all showed considerable progress 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 person in the sample continuing to have the symptoms of less depression six months after beginning to wear hearing aids. Large groupings of U.S. veterans who were suffering from hearing loss were evaluated in a 1992 study that 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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