Jessica West, a PhD student in sociology at Duke, has found that hearing loss creates chronic stress but that high levels of social support – from family, friends and others – can help alleviate depression. Given that hearing loss is a growing social and physical health problem, her study suggests a need for increased vigilance regarding hearing loss among older adults, West said.
Her study was published in the November issue of Social Science & Medicine and is available here.
Here, West discusses her research.
Your research examines the correlation between hearing loss and depression. That seems a logical connection: why study it in the way you did?
Despite how common hearing loss is, it is actually quite understudied. A handful of studies have looked at the relationship between hearing loss and mental health over time, but the results from these studies are mixed: some find a relationship between hearing loss and more depressive symptoms, while others do not. On top of the mixed findings, most studies have been based overseas, and studies based in the U.S. have tended to use state-specific datasets, like the Alameda County Study, which drew from Oakland and Berkeley, CA.
I use the Health and Retirement Study, which is nationally representative of adults aged 50 and older in the U.S., and therefore more generalizable to the U.S. population.
I frame hearing loss as a physical health stressor that can impact mental health, and that social support can alter this relationship by preventing a person from experiencing stress or reducing the severity of a reaction to it. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first paper to link hearing loss to health outcomes in this way.
What might surprise people about your findings?
More than one-fifth of the people in my sample have fair to poor hearing (23.12% or 1,405 people in the first wave). Hearing loss is really common in the U.S.
Also, I found that social support is most beneficial in easing the burden of hearing loss among people with significant hearing loss. Overall, this suggests that hearing loss is a chronic stressor in people’s lives and that responses to this stressor will vary by the level of social resources that people have available to them.
What does ‘social support’ mean in real terms? What can the family and friends do for a person with hearing loss to help them?
For people with hearing loss, it’s important that they feel able to lean on, talk to, and rely on family, friends, spouses or partners, and children. And going a step further, people with hearing loss need to know that these important people in their lives truly understand the struggles they face. What this means is that people with hearing loss can benefit quite a lot from having a network of people that they feel comfortable discussing things with or reaching out to when needed.
Do people with hearing loss have adequate mental health resources or care available to them?
My research shows that social support is really important for people with hearing loss. One suggestion I make in my paper is that audiologic – or hearing — rehabilitation programs could include educational training for significant others, like spouses or friends, to emphasize the importance of supporting people with hearing impairment. Audiologists, primary care physicians, family, and friends are all key resources that could be targeted in such rehabilitation programs.
What is your next project related to hearing loss?
I am currently working on several projects related to hearing loss. In one, I am looking at the relationship between an individual’s hearing loss and his/her spouse’s mental health outcomes. Few population-based studies have examined the relationship between hearing loss and spousal mental health longitudinally, so I hope this study will shed light on the experience of spousal disability within marriages.
Another project I am working on looks at hearing loss from a life course perspective. In other words, I am looking at people who self-reported hearing loss before the age of 16 and seeing how their hearing loss influenced their marriages, academics and careers. A better understanding of how early life hearing loss influences later life outcomes has implications for earlier identification of hearing loss and/or the use of assistive technology to help people remain socially, academically, and economically engaged.
CITATION: West, Jessica S. 2017. “Hearing Impairment, Social Support, and Depressive Symptoms among U.S. Adults: A Test of the Stress Process Paradigm.” Social Science & Medicine 192(Supplement C):94-101.
Guest post by Eric Ferreri, News and Communications