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Researchers highlight link between hearing loss and depression

Researchers highlight link between hearing loss and depression
16th January 2019

For many older people, mental health challenges such as depression and anxiety can be just as big a concern as physical conditions such as arthritis and vision loss.

Often, the mental and the physical are very closely linked when it comes to maintaining good overall health, as was recently highlighted in a study carried out in the US.

A team from Columbia University conducted cross-sectional research involving more than 5,300 people aged 50 years and over from four US communities. Their aim was to determine if there is an association between objectively measured age-related hearing loss and depression.

They focused on the Hispanic community - a group in which depression may be underdiagnosed as a result of language and cultural barriers - but noted that the results could be applied to anyone with age-related hearing loss.

Specific findings showed it's possible to make a link between hearing loss and clinically relevant depressive symptoms. Adjusting for factors such as age, sex, educational level, cardiovascular disease and antidepressant use, the researchers found that the odds of experiencing symptoms of depression increased by approximately 45 per cent for every 20-decibel increase in hearing loss.

Individuals with severe hearing loss were found to be over four times as likely to experience depressive symptoms.

The study, which was published in the JAMA Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery journal, noted: "Greater hearing loss [is] seemingly associated with greater odds of having depressive symptoms. Given the high prevalence of untreated hearing loss in older adults, hearing loss may be a potentially modifiable risk factor for late-life depression."

Age-related hearing loss is extremely common, with the majority of people over the age of 70 experiencing at least mild impairment in hearing. Justin S. Golub, MD, MS, lead author of the study and assistant professor of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at Columbia University's Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, said relatively few people are diagnosed with this condition, and even fewer receive treatment.

"Hearing loss is easy to diagnose and treat, and treatment may be even more important if it can help ease or prevent depression," he added.

While age-related hearing loss is known to increase the risk of conditions such as cognitive impairment and dementia, the connection to depression is yet to be thoroughly investigated.

The Columbia University team pointed out that preliminary studies examining the link between these conditions were limited by subjective hearing measures, small sample sizes and primarily white populations.

This latest project looked for associations at a single point of time, meaning it couldn't prove that hearing loss directly causes depression. Professor Golub said a prospective, randomised trial would be required to make that conclusion.

However, he also said it is "understandable" how hearing loss could be a significant contributing factor in the development of depressive symptoms.

"People with hearing loss have trouble communicating and tend to become more socially isolated, and social isolation can lead to depression," Professor Golub noted.

In the UK, hearing loss affects more than 40 per cent of people over 50 years old and 71 per cent of people over the age of 70, according to the charity Action on Hearing Loss.