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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Columbia: To Head Off Late-life Depression, Check Your Hearing

A new study by researchers at Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC) and the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health found that elderly individuals with age-related hearing loss had more symptoms of depression; the greater the hearing loss, the greater the risk of having depressive symptoms. The findings suggest that treatment of age-related hearing loss, which is underrecognized and undertreated among all elderly, could be one way to head off late-life depression. The study was published online in JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery.

Most people over age 70 have at least mild hearing loss, yet relatively few are diagnosed, much less treated, for this condition, according to the investigators. “Hearing loss is easy to diagnose and treat, and treatment may be even more important if it can help ease or prevent depression,” noted assistant professor and lead author Dr. Justin S. Golub.

Age-related hearing loss is the third-most common chronic condition in older adults. The condition is known to raise the risk of other conditions, such as cognitive impairment and dementia. But there are few large studies asking 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.

The 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.

The researchers 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.

The study looked for an association at a single point in time, so it cannot prove that hearing loss causes depressive symptoms — that would have to be demonstrated in a prospective, randomized trial, according to the researchers. But it is understandable how hearing loss could contribute to depressive symptoms. People with hearing loss have trouble communicating and tend to become more socially isolated, and social isolation can lead to depression, they noted.

Although the study focused on Hispanics, the results likely apply to anyone with age-related hearing loss, according to Dr. José A. Luchsinger, professor of epidemiology at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health and professor of medicine at CUIMC.

The study is titled, “Association of Audiometric Age-Related Hearing Loss With Depressive Symptoms Among Hispanic Individuals” and was supported by Collaborative and Multidisciplinary Pilot Research Awards from the Columbia University Irving Institute for Clinical and Translational Research and by grants from the National Institute on Aging (K23AG057832 and K24AG045334).