Rule Out Hearing Loss
Both experts emphasize that psychiatrists should be suspicious of potential hearing loss when treating an older adult who is showing signs of depression, anxiety, or cognitive impairment.
The quiet office room in which a psychiatrist typically sees patients will not yield the necessary information. “The worst place to test a person’s hearing is the office because this is usually not where the problem occurs. Rather, it takes place in groups of people or other settings where there is background noise,” Dr Blazer pointed out.
Patients who require hearing tests should be referred to audiologists, who are the “entry point for people with hearing impairments,” he said.
Nevertheless, a simple screening test administered in the office can provide useful information. The Hearing Handicap Inventory for the Elderly–Screening Version can be a helpful way to start.11
Patients who are already aware of a hearing impairment and even those already wearing hearing aids should still be referred for an evaluation of their hearing prior to determining whether they have a mood disorder or cognitive impairment because their hearing may not be sufficiently corrected by these devices, Dr. Frisina added.
Risk Factors for Hearing Loss
Becoming aware of risk factors for hearing loss may raise a clinician’s level of suspicion that the condition is affecting his or her patient.
Several classes of medications are implicated in hearing impairments or hearing loss. Ototoxic medications include aminoglycosides and macrolides, certain cancer chemotherapy drugs (eg, cisplatin), and loop diuretics.12 Long-term use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and acetaminophen is also associated with hearing loss.13 Some evidence suggests that salicylates, progestin, and sildenafil also increase the risk.11
Antiepileptic drugs (eg, carbamazepine, phenytoin, valproate, lamotrigine, gabapentin, vigabatrin, and oxcarbazepine) can cause auditory and vestibular toxicities, so monitoring of patients taking these agents who are at high risk for audio-vestibular manifestations is necessary for appropriate preventive and therapeutic measures.14
Additional risk factors include male sex, exposure to loud noises, medical conditions (eg, diabetes mellitus, renal failure, atherosclerosis, immunosuppression, and head injury), industrial chemicals (eg, toluene and styrene), and tobacco use.11
Tips for Psychiatrists Treating Hearing-Impaired Older Patients
Provide education. An important role that a psychiatrist can play in working with hearing-impaired older patients is to educate their families, Dr Frisina said.
“Tell the family that granddad isn’t ignoring you and doesn’t have dementia, but rather has a hearing loss that should be treated with hearing aids,” he suggested.
Family members should be made aware that speaking louder does not help and, in fact, often creates auditory distortion. “It is better to speak more clearly and more slowly, and to allow the person to see the face, get facial cues, and read lips,” Dr Frisina advised.
Educating the patient about his or her condition and what can and cannot be realistically expected from hearing aids and other interventions is also key. The NIDCC provides helpful fact sheets that can be given to the patient.1
Refer patients to audiologists. “Audiologists do not just prescribe hearing aids,” Dr Blazer pointed out. “They offer many techniques to help people cope better with hearing loss.” They can also be active in helping patients deal with tinnitus, which is a common and extremely challenging problem.
He added that many hearing instrument specialists who fit people with hearing aids can also provide the patient with useful tips for adapting to hearing loss.
Refer patients to auditory training programs. “The literature underlying auditory plasticity following placement of sensory devices suggests that additional auditory training may be needed for reorganization of the brain to occur and optimal performance from devices to be obtained.”15 Certain programs can also be accessed using web-based formats and smartphone technology.15
Auditory training programs are often offered by audiology centers that specialize in the elderly. “A university or good hospital with an audiology department would be a good place to start if you want to refer patients for auditory training,” Dr Frisina said.
Dr Frisina warned that the long-term success of these programs in improving hearing is “controversial.”
“We know they can make improvements while the person is in the program, but it is unclear if there are lasting benefits after the training program ends.”
Still, he added, “It won’t hurt and it will help while the patient is in the program.”
Encourage patients to listen to music. Music has shown effectiveness in providing neuroprotection.16 Dr Frisina called music “a special stimulus,” noting that in people with dementia and even advanced Alzheimer’s disease, “the last meaningful auditory stimulus is music. Some patients who are unable to understand commands can still dance or sing with the music.” He cautioned that music should not be too loud, which could cause further hearing damage.
As the baby boomers continue to age, the prevalence of hearing impairments in older adults will continue to rise. It is essential for psychiatrists to be aware of the interplay between hearing loss and mood disorders and to address the hearing loss before reaching a diagnostic conclusion or treatment plan.
1. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). Hearing Loss and Older Adults. Available at: https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/hearing-loss-older-adults. Updated July 17, 2018. Accessed August 31, 2017.
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13. Lin BM, Curhan SG, Wang M, Eavey R, Stankovic KM, Curhan GC. Duration of analgesic use and risk of hearing loss in women. Am J Epidemiol. 2017;185(1):40-47.
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16. Kraus N, Zatorre RJ, Strait DL. Editors’ introduction to Hearing Research special issue: music: a window into the hearing brain. Hear Res. 2014;308:1.
This article originally appeared on Psychiatry Advisor