Hearing impairment, social support, and depressive symptoms among U.S. adults: A test of the stress process paradigm

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Hearing impairment is a growing physical disability affecting older adults and is an important physical health stressor, but few studies have examined it in relation to mental health outcomes and even fewer have considered the role of social support in buffering this relationship. The current study builds on the stress process framework and uses longitudinal data from three waves of the Health and Retirement Study (2006, 2010, 2014) to examine the relationship between hearing impairment and depressive symptoms among U.S. adults aged 50 and older (n = 6075). The analysis uses fixed-effects models to assess this relationship and examine the extent to which social support mediates (buffers) or moderates (interaction) the association. The results found that worse self-rated hearing was associated with a significant increase in depressive symptoms, even after controlling for sociodemographic factors. Social support did not buffer this relationship. Instead, social support interacted with hearing impairment: low levels of social support were associated with more depressive symptoms but only among people with poor self-rated hearing. Among those with excellent self-rated hearing, low levels of social support did not increase depressive symptoms. Moreover, high levels of social support reduced depressive symptoms for those with poor hearing. These findings suggest that hearing impairment is a chronic stressor in individuals' lives, and that responses to this stressor vary by the availability of social resources.





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West, JS (2017). Hearing impairment, social support, and depressive symptoms among U.S. adults: A test of the stress process paradigm. Social Science and Medicine, 192. pp. 94–101. 10.1016/j.socscimed.2017.09.031 Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/28653.

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Jessica Sayles West

Medical Instructor in the Department of Head and Neck Surgery & Communication Sciences

Jessica is a medical sociologist who specializes in research on hearing loss, aging, and health disparities over the life course. Jessica’s work has described the “spillover” effects of hearing loss on health outcomes for both individuals and those close to them, as well as sociodemographic disparities in the onset of and life expectancy with hearing loss. Her research, which leverages both population-level data and electronic health record data, has appeared in the Journals of Gerontology, Social Science & Medicine, Ear and Hearing, and other leading journals in medical sociology, hearing, and aging research.

Jessica received a B.A. from the University of Michigan in Social Anthropology (dual Sociology/Anthropology concentration) followed by an M.P.H. in Sociomedical Sciences with a certificate in Public Health Research Methods from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. She subsequently received an M.A. and Ph.D. in Sociology with a focus in Medical Sociology and Demography at Duke University. She then completed an NIA T32 Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Duke University Aging Center under the mentorship of Matthew E. Dupre, Ph.D. (Population Health Sciences) and Sherri L. Smith, Au.D., Ph.D. (Head and Neck Surgery & Communication Sciences).

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