Older People with Hearing Loss at Risk for Depression

February 7th, 2019


New research shows further evidence that older people with hearing loss have more symptoms of depression. The greater the hearing loss, the greater the risk, according to the data. These findings suggest that treatment of age-related hearing loss, which is underrecognized and undertreated among all elderly, could be one way to head off later-life depression.

People with hearing loss usually find communication difficult, which can lead to stress, fatigue and social isolation. And social isolation leads to depression, especially in older adults. But it wasn’t until recently that researchers were able to show that is was more of a problem than previously thought.

Many people older than 70 have at least mild hearing loss, but relatively few are diagnosed or treated. Hearing loss is the third-most occurring condition in older adults. Presbycusis, the most common form of hearing loss is associated with aging, occurs gradually. It is characterized by loss of the highest frequency consonant sounds and trouble understanding speech in the presence of background noise.

Between 25 and 40 percent of those over the age of 65 have hearing loss. Unfortunately, for the majority of older adults, hearing loss goes undetected and untreated. Only nine percent of internists recommend hearing tests to their older patients. And even with testing, only 25 percent of those whose hearing loss is treatable take action to get hearing devices.

“Hearing loss is easy to diagnose and treat, and treatment may be even more important if it can help ease or prevent depression,” said lead researcher Justin Golub.

Age-related hearing loss is known to raise the risk of other conditions, such as cognitive impairment and dementia. But there are few large studies trying to discover whether hearing loss may lead to depression in the elderly – particularly in Hispanics, a group in which depression may be underdiagnosed because of language and cultural barriers.

This researchers analyzed health data from 5,239 individuals over age 50 who were enrolled in the Hispanic Community Health Study/Study of Latinos. Each participant had an audiometric hearing test – an objective way to assess hearing loss – and was screened for depression.

They found that individuals with mild hearing loss were almost twice as likely to have clinically significant symptoms of depression than those with normal hearing. Individuals with severe hearing loss had over four times the odds of having depressive symptoms.

Because the research did not revisit the participants over time, it has limits. It couldn’t show that hearing loss caused depressive symptoms – just that there was an association at that point in time. Although the study focused on Hispanics, the results could be applied to anyone with age-related hearing loss. “In general, all older individuals should get their hearing tested and consider treatment,” says Golub.