The complex link between depression and hearing loss
Everyone can agree that mental health and hearing health are important, yet it wasn’t until the results of recent studies were released that a strong correlation between the two was confirmed. Depression in particular has been linked to hearing loss and unfortunately both conditions often go unacknowledged, unrecognized or untreated by health care professionals. But what if that wasn’t the case? Could shining a spotlight on the link between hearing loss and depression improve mental health for millions?
It stands to reason that depression and hearing loss go hand-in-hand, as those with hearing loss can find communication difficult. Difficulty communicating 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.
A study by the Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders shows that more than 11 percent of those with hearing loss also had depression, as opposed to only 5 percent in the general population. Depression was most prevalent in those between the ages of 18 and 69.
“We found a significant association between hearing impairment and moderate to severe depression," said Dr. Chuan-Ming Li, a researcher at NIDOCD and the author of the study. "The cause-and-effect relationship is unknown."
Hearing loss is the third most occurring condition in older adults. Presbycusis, the most common form of hearing loss, typically occurs gradually. It is characterized by loss of the highest frequency consonants and trouble filtering background noise. Between 25 and 40 percent of those over the age of 65 have hearing loss. Unfortunately in the majority of older adults, hearing loss goes undetected and untreated. The reason could be that only 9 percent of internists offer hearing tests to their older patients. Even with testing, only 25 percent of those whose hearing loss is treatable take action to get any form of hearing device.
So what can be done? As stated above, most physicians do not report offering hearing tests or depression screening to their older patients. It is vital that physicians not only regularly offer hearing tests, but also become familiar with the symptoms of depression and screen patients accordingly, especially if a hearing loss is suspected.
It is important to note that while some symptoms of depression such as sadness and hopelessness are more obvious, others are less well known but just as devastating to quality of life. Fatigue, difficulty concentrating, loss of appetite, irritability and loss of interest in hobbies can all interfere with daily life and normal functioning within a family and social groups. The onus doesn't only fall on the physicians; friends and family members should look out for any signs and symptoms of depression as well.
With the results of new research, doctors may be more aware of and better able to spot symptoms of depression in those with hearing loss or to refer those with symptoms of depression for further mental health treatment. Referring those with hearing loss and depression for treatment may help those people regain an emotional foothold, become socially engaged once again and experience an improvement in their quality of life.
How could hearing tests change treatment for depression? It is possible that a person might have depression that is caused by hearing loss, so a hearing test prior to prescribing antidepressants could help patients avoid unnecessary medications. Conversely, hearing care professionals who diagnose hearing loss should screen for depression so a patient experiencing symptoms can seek treatment whether through medication or therapy.
Though prevalent, it is possible to minimize the risk of depression related to hearing loss related. First and foremost, those suspecting hearing loss should seek the care of a hearing healthcare professional as early as possible. Studies show that those who seek treatment for hearing loss early on greatly reduce their risk of depression. After seeking treatment, it is important to remember that a well-planned adjustment period is necessary for new hearing instruments; a good audiologic rehabilitation program will help hearing aid users adjust to the new equipment and new sounds gradually over a period of time. Also, there are many support groups for those with hearing loss; organizations such as The Hearing Loss Association of America and The Association of Late Deafened Adults can be valuable resources for information as well as to help those experiencing hearing loss to know they are not alone in what they are going through.
While there is a link between hearing loss and depression, it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. If you or someone you know is experiencing depression, a simple hearing test could change the course dramatically. A survey by the Better Hearing Institute found that 9 out of ten people reported a significant improvement in their quality of life after receiving hearing aids. Conversely, if you are experiencing hearing loss, a depression screening and referral for treatment could help to improve your quality of life and allow you to re-engage.