Hearing Health Blog

Doctor speaks with patient about medical conditions related to hearing loss and tinnitus.

Aging is one of the most common indicators of hearing loss and truth be told, try as we might, we can’t escape aging. But were you aware hearing loss can lead to between
loss problems
that are treatable, and in certain situations, preventable? Here’s a look at a few examples that will surprise you.

1: Diabetes

Over 5,000 American adults were examined in a 2008 study which revealed that diabetes diagnosed people were two times as likely to have mild or more hearing loss when analyzed with low or mid-frequency sounds. High frequency impairment was also likely but not as severe. The researchers also observed that individuals who were pre-diabetic, in other words, people with blood sugar levels that are elevated, but not high enough to be defined as diabetes, were 30 % more likely than those with healthy blood sugar levels, to have loss of hearing. A more recent 2013 meta-study (that’s right, a study of studies) found that there was a persistent link between loss of hearing and diabetes, even while taking into account other variables.

So it’s solidly determined that diabetes is linked to an increased chance of loss of hearing. But why should diabetes put you at higher danger of getting loss of hearing? Science is somewhat at a loss here. Diabetes is linked to a broad range of health concerns, and in particular, the eyes, extremities and kidneys can be damaged physically. One hypothesis is that the the ears might be similarly impacted by the disease, hurting blood vessels in the inner ear. But it could also be related to general health management. A 2015 study highlighted the connection between loss of hearing and diabetes in U.S veterans, but in particular, it found that individuals with uncontrolled diabetes, in essence, people suffered even worse if they had uncontrolled and untreated diabetes. It’s essential to have your blood sugar tested and consult with a doctor if you think you might have undiagnosed diabetes or may be pre-diabetic. It’s a good idea to get your hearing tested if you’re having trouble hearing also.

2: Falling

All right, this is not really a health issue, since we aren’t dealing with vertigo, but having a bad fall can initiate a cascade of health concerns. And though you might not think that your hearing would affect your possibility of tripping or slipping, a 2012 study revealed a substantial link between hearing loss and fall risk. While examining over 2,000 adults between the ages of 40 to 69, scientists discovered that for every 10 dB rise in hearing loss (for reference, normal breathing is about 10 dB), the danger of falling increased 1.4X. Even for people with slight hearing loss the link held up: Within the last twelve months people who had 25 dB of hearing loss were more likely to have fallen than individuals with normal hearing.

Why should having difficulty hearing cause you to fall? Even though our ears play a significant role in helping us balance, there are other reasons why loss of hearing could get you down (in this case, quite literally). Even though this research didn’t go into what was the cause of the subject’s falls, the authors believed that having problems hearing what’s going on around you you (and missing an important sound such as a car honking) might be one issue. But it could also go the other way if difficulty hearing means you’re paying more attention to sounds than to what’s around you, it could be easy to trip and fall. What’s promising here is that dealing with loss of hearing may potentially minimize your chance of having a fall.

3: High Blood Pressure

Multiple studies (including this one from 2018) have revealed that hearing loss is associated with high blood pressure and some (like this 2013 study) have observed that high blood pressure could actually accelerate age-related hearing loss. Even after controlling for variables such as noise exposure or if you smoke, the link has been relatively persistently revealed. The only variable that matters appears to be sex: The link between high blood pressure and hearing loss, if your a man, is even stronger.

Your ears aren’t part of your circulatory system, but they’re darn close to it: Two main arteries are very near to the ears as well as the tiny blood vessels inside them. This is one explanation why people who have high blood pressure often experience tinnitus, it’s actually their own blood pumping that they’re hearing. (That’s why this kind of tinnitus is called pulsatile tinnitus; you’re hearing your pulse.) The main theory for why high blood pressure can quicken hearing loss is that high blood pressure can also cause permanent injury to your ears. If your heart is pumping harder, there’s more pressure behind each beat. That could possibly damage the smaller blood arteries in your ears. Through medical intervention and changes in lifestyle, high blood pressure can be managed. But if you believe you’re experiencing loss of hearing even if you believe you’re not old enough for the age-related stuff, it’s a good idea to speak with a hearing specialist.

4: Dementia

Risk of dementia might be higher with loss of hearing. 2013 research from Johns Hopkins University that was documented after almost 2,000 people in their 70’s during the period of six years found that the chance of cognitive impairment increased by 24% with just slight loss of hearing (about 25 dB, or slightly louder than a whisper). It was also found, in a study from 2011 conducted by the same research group, that the risk of dementia raised proportionally the worse hearing loss became. (Alzheimer’s was also found to have a similar link, even though it was less substantial.) moderate hearing loss, based on these findings, puts you at 3X the danger of somebody who doesn’t have loss of hearing; one’s risk is nearly quintupled with significant hearing loss.

But, even though experts have been able to document the connection between loss of hearing and cognitive decline, they still don’t know why this takes place. A common hypothesis is that having difficulty hearing can cause people to avoid social interactions, and that social withdrawal and lack of mental stimulation can be incapacitating. Another hypothesis is that hearing loss overloads your brain. In essence, because your brain is putting so much of its recourses into understanding the sounds around you, you might not have very much energy left for remembering things like where you put your medication. Maintaining social ties and keeping the brain active and challenged could help here, but so can treating hearing loss. If you’re capable of hearing clearly, social situations become much easier to manage, and you’ll be capable of focusing on the critical things instead of trying to figure out what someone just said. So if you are dealing with loss of hearing, you should put a plan of action in place including having a hearing exam.

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