Hearing Loss and Depression: Are They Connected?

Ask people about their struggles with hearing loss and depression, and the floodgates burst open. “It’s a lonely world”, “My life is horrible”, “I just stay home”, and “So many tears” are some of the comments seen in a hearing loss support group on Facebook.

Depression and hearing loss. What's your experience?

What does the research say?

Comments like these are unfortunately borne out by the research: A recent U.S. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) report revealed that >30% of adults (aged 18 to 69) with self-reported hearing loss have dealt with symptoms of depression. The study further found that the likelihood of depression increased as hearing loss worsened or went untreated.

Prevalence of Depression Among US Adults by Sex and Reported Hearing Status, National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2005-2010

Prevalence of Depression Among US Adults by Sex and Reported Hearing Status, National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2005-2010. Source: JAMA

These distressing findings hold true for people age 65-plus, too. A 2019 study found that among the elderly, one in five with hearing loss may experience symptoms of depression.

Why does hearing loss increase the risk?

Beyond a common bout of the blues, depression is a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and apathy. It can disrupt your ability to perform day-to-day activities and lead to a host of physical and further emotional problems.

“Those with hearing loss might be particularly prone to depression because the struggle to ‘keep up’ can make you feel down,” explains Piers Dawes, Ph.D., associate professor of audiology at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, and the University of Manchester in the UK. “People with communication challenges in social settings may deal with it by avoiding such situations,” he told Hearing Tracker. “Unfortunately, withdrawing can make someone more vulnerable to depression.”

If you have hearing loss, feelings of anxiety, frustration, and embarrassment can lead to the shunning of everything from parties and athletic activities to business networking opportunities. Especially now, as the availability of COVID-19 vaccines allows for more group events, you can feel more left out and cut off.

Comments from the hearing loss support group bear this out. “If you don’t trust that you’re hearing a conversation right, you’re not confident enough to socialize,” David B. shared. Lynette W. added: “When I can’t be a part of conversations going on around me, I isolate more.”

Making matters still worse, people with hearing impairment and depression may also confront negative stereotypes—for both conditions. “Popular media often portray people with hearing loss as comical, stupid, frail and/or incompetent,” Dr. Dawes pointed out. “And there is still a stigma around mental health that may make people generally reluctant to speak about depression.”

The road to relief

But speaking up and out about your situation is a major first step toward healing. According to Dr. Dawes, simply talking to friends and family may ease mild depression, while those with moderate symptoms may benefit from talk therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).  “For more severe depression, doctors may recommend anti-depression medication, perhaps in combination with CBT,” he said. And there’s no discounting the value of relating with others who truly “get” what you’re going through, via a hearing-loss peer support group.

David B., for one, found that, “Therapy is solution-focused instead problem-focused, which is why I recommend it strongly.” With counseling, he found the strength to enter social situations, despite his insecurity. “The more you place yourself in social gatherings, the more comfortable and confident you will become,” he added.

Another strategy he learned from putting himself out there: “Instead of asking people to repeat themselves, I ask them to help me understand,” he said. “That way, instead of yelling the exact same statement, people will often reword it, using better choices in an appropriate tone.”

Of course, using hearing aids can help foster better communication and boost confidence. This alone, however, is not a panacea for depression. “Hearing aids may help people lead more active social lives and should be seen as a positive lifestyle choice, but lots of factors impact mental health,” said Dr. Dawes. “Optimizing hearing is one step that should be part of a complete, holistic approach to health and well-being.” So if depression takes root, do take steps to seek help and improve your mood.