The Connection Between Hearing Loss and Depression

Last update on Feb, 17, 2020

Millions of Americans suffer from depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions. Often family and friends don’t understand what the individual is experiencing or what caused these conditions, as illustrated in this conversation between two members of a card-playing group…

Sam: “Has anyone seen Brett? The bridge tournament starts in fifteen minutes!”

Julie: “I don’t know, but when I saw him yesterday he seemed a little down in the mouth.”

Sam: “Any idea what’s wrong?”

Julie: “No. I got the feeling he doesn’t want to talk about it. I wonder if it has anything to do with his daughter — you know, she’s going through a divorce.”

Sam: “Didn’t Brett just go to the doctor? Maybe he got some bad news.”

Hearing loss is a risk factor of mental illness

Unbeknownst to his friends, Brett was experiencing clinical depression, one of America’s most common mental health conditions, affecting more than 17 million adults, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

What causes depression? The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) cites a number of possible contributing factors, including trauma, genetics, life circumstances, brain changes, other medical conditions and the misuse of alcohol or drugs. However, the exact cause in an individual case can be difficult to determine.

In recent years, it’s become increasingly clear that hearing loss, experienced by approximately 36 million Americans, may significantly elevate a person’s risk for developing mental health conditions, particularly depression.

People of all ages with hearing loss are susceptible to depression, according to research conducted by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). This study found that 11.4% of adults with a self-reported hearing loss experienced moderate to severe depression, compared to 5.9% of adults with normal hearing.

The risk appears to be even higher for older adults. Notably, people age 60 or older with hearing loss are 47% more likely than their normal-hearing peers to experience symptoms of depression, according to a review of 35 studies involving 147,148 individuals.

The link between depression and hearing loss

There are a number of possible explanations for the connection between hearing loss and depression. A leading culprit may be social isolation and loneliness.
One expert on hearing loss and depression sums it up this way: “We know that older adults with hearing loss often withdraw from social occasions because they have trouble understanding others in noisy situations, which can lead to emotional and social loneliness.”

He goes on to say: “We also know that older adults with hearing loss are more likely to experience mild cognitive decline and difficulty completing daily activities, which can have an additional negative impact on their quality of life and increase the risk of developing depression.” Researchers think other factors may play a role in the hearing loss-depression connection. For example, people with hearing loss often have balance issues, which can lead to decreased physical activity and ultimately depression. Another side effect of hearing loss is tinnitus, commonly called “ringing in the ears.” Severe cases of tinnitus can disrupt a person’s life, contributing to depression.

Make hearing health part of the conversation

In the “overheard” conversation above, Brett’s friends didn’t connect a gradual deterioration of his hearing ability with his growing social isolation and the resulting changes in his behavior and personality.

Even if they had, they might not have grasped the profound ramifications of Brett’s depression. At a personal level, depression can disrupt key aspects of life, including sleep, appetite, concentration, energy and interest in activities. People with depression may also experience feelings of hopelessness and suicidal thoughts.

Depression also comes with enormous financial consequences. One prominent health care consultant estimates the cost to U.S. society at $210 billion annually. Much of this expense, he explains, can be attributed to treating related mental illnesses, such as anxiety, as well as associated physical illnesses. Employers also pay a steep price through absenteeism and reduced productivity.

Could Brett have reduced his depression risk by getting help for his hearing loss? The National Council on Aging (NCOA) investigated this question, analyzing results from a survey of 2,300 hearing-impaired adults age 50 and older. In its report, the NCOA concluded that people with untreated hearing loss are more likely to report sadness, depression, worry, anxiety and paranoia than those who wear hearing aids.

Unfortunately, people like Brett often don’t understand the impact of hearing loss on their mental health. Compounding matters, they may not seek treatment because of the high cost of hearing aids. Your organization can help complete the conversation by spreading the word about the connection between hearing health and mental health. In addition, you can help make hearing aids more accessible by offering a hearing benefit or hearing health care program.

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