A new study suggests that treating age-related hearing loss — an often underrecognized and undertreated condition among the elderly — may help lower the risk of late-life depression.

The findings, published online in JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery, show that elderly people with age-related hearing loss exhibit more symptoms of depression.

In fact, the greater the hearing loss, the greater the risk of having depressive symptoms. Compared to normal-hearing participants, those with mild hearing loss were nearly twice as likely to have depressive symptoms, while those with severe hearing loss were four times as likely to have depressive symptoms.

The study was conducted with an elderly Hispanic population, a group in which depression may be underdiagnosed because of language and cultural barriers.

“Most people over age 70 have at least mild hearing loss, yet relatively few are diagnosed, much less treated, for this condition,” said lead author Justin S. Golub, M.D., M.S., assistant professor of otolaryngology-head & neck surgery at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York.

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

Age-related hearing loss is one of the most common chronic conditions in older adults. Poor hearing is known to raise the risk of other conditions, such as cognitive impairment and dementia.

But there are few large-scale studies investigating whether hearing loss may lead to depression in the elderly.

For the study, 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 to objectively assess hearing loss and was screened for depression.

The findings reveal that elderly individuals with mild hearing loss were almost twice as likely to have clinically significant symptoms of depression than those with normal hearing. Those with severe hearing loss had over four times the odds of having depressive symptoms.

The researchers looked for an association at a single point in time, so this study doesn’t prove that hearing loss causes depressive symptoms.

“That would have to be demonstrated in a prospective, randomized trial,” said Golub. “But it’s 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.”

Although the study focused on Hispanics, the findings can be applied to anyone with age-related hearing loss, said the researchers. “In general, older individuals should get their hearing tested and consider treatment, if warranted,” Golub said.

Source: Columbia University Irving Medical Center