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With over two thirds of people over 70 years of age experiencing some form of age-related hearing loss, it is a remarkably common condition. Yet, did you know that hearing loss is highly associated with symptoms of depression and other mental health challenges? Indeed, the rates of depression among those with hearing loss are much higher than among their counterparts who do not have hearing loss at all. What might cause this association?
Many people point to social isolation as the intermediate factor. Those who have trouble hearing tend to have trouble in conversations, as well. When they are faced with a large gathering, it can feel overwhelming to try to understand all the speakers at once. Rather than engaging with social events, dinners out, and parties, some people with hearing loss would prefer to avoid them altogether. Once they start skipping these connecting social functions, they can begin to feel disconnected from their families, loved ones, and communities. This feeling of social isolation is one of the possible ways that hearing loss can be associated with higher rates of depression.
Treating Hearing Loss Can Help
A recent study engaged with people who had hearing loss and compared their mental states before and after receiving hearing aids or cochlear implants. This study took place as a collaboration between scholars at Johns Hopkins University, Drexel University, and the University of Oklahoma. Indeed, when this team devised the study, they were able to recruit 113 participants with a median age of 70 years old. This group was asked about their mental health prior to receiving hearing loss treatment.
The researchers recorded their responses with a 15-item Geriatric Depression Scale. Those who scored between 3 and 10 on this test are said to be experiencing symptoms of depression. This test was taken at the outset of the study, 6 months after treatment, and 12 months after treatment. By using the implementation of hearing aids as an intervention in their lives, the researchers were able to measure the effect of the hearing aids in a range of cases.
The results were striking. Those who received cochlear implants saw an improvement of 31% on the Geriatric Depression Scale after 6 months. Their scores continued to improve by an additional 7 % by the time 12 months had passed. Although this effect was significant for those receiving cochlear implants, the pattern was different for those who received hearing aids. Although they did demonstrate a 28% improvement in scores on the Geriatric Depression Scale after 6 months, their scores returned to the baseline by the time 12 months had passed. What might account for this result?
In part, structural features of the study might have posed limitations. The relatively small sample size meant that they were not able to generalize to the population with this data. As well, the sample was obtained through a convenient group of people seeking hearing loss treatment. If the sample were drawn from the population at large, then other results might have appeared. Finally, there was not a “control” group in this study. Another intervening factor might have been related to the change in levels of depression that had nothing to do with hearing aids at all.
Seeking Hearing Loss Treatment
Though the study was limited in these ways, researchers remain curious about the significant effects of cochlear implants in comparison with the temporary effects of hearing aids. What is it about cochlear implants that makes them work so differently from hearing aids when it comes to ongoing relief from depression?
More research is necessary to uncover the underlying relationship between depression and hearing loss, as well as the curative effects of treatment. In any case, it is important to pay attention to the mental health of your loved ones, particularly those with hearing loss.
If you sense that these loved ones might be struggling with social isolation, don’t delay encouraging them to get a hearing test. Once you have embarked on the path toward treatment, you can help your loved one reengage with the social world, extending the networks of support not only from your family, friends, and loved ones but also to the community at large.