The complex link between depression and hearing loss
Everyone can likely 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 has been linked to hearing loss and unfortunately, both conditions too often go unacknowledged and 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. People with hearing loss usually find communication difficult, and this 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 National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) 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 NIDCD and the author of the study. The study does not confirm the nature of the cause-and-effect of the connection.
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, in the majority of older adults, hearing loss goes undetected and untreated. The reason could be that only 9 percent of internists recommend hearing tests to their older patients. Even with testing, only 25 percent of those whose hearing loss is treatable take action to get hearing devices.
Knowing the signs
So what can be done? It is vital that physicians not only recommend routine hearing tests, but also become familiar with the symptoms of depression and screen patients accordingly, especially if a hearing loss is suspected.
While some symptoms of depression such as sadness and feelings of 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 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 patients 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? For a person who has depression caused by or made worse by underlying hearing loss, 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. First and foremost, if you suspect hearing loss, seek the care of a hearing healthcare professional as early as possible. Studies show that those who seek treatment for hearing loss early greatly reduce their risk of depression. After seeking treatment, a well-planned adjustment period is necessary for new hearing aids; a good audiologic rehabilitation program will help you adjust to new sounds gradually. Also, there are many support groups for those with hearing loss; organizations such as The Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) and The Association of Late Deafened Adults can be valuable resources for information and can assure you that you're not alone in what you are going through.
While there is a link between hearing loss and depression, it doesn’t have to be that way. If you or someone you know is experiencing depression, a simple hearing test could change the course dramatically. Here's how to find a provider near you. 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 with life.