Aging is one of the most common indicators of hearing loss and let’s face it, as hard as we may try, aging can’t be escaped. But were you aware loss of hearing has also been linked to health problems that are treatable, and in many cases, can be avoided? Here’s a look at various cases that will surprise you.
A widely-cited 2008 study that looked at over 5,000 American adults found that diabetes diagnosed individuals were twice as likely to have mild or greater hearing loss when mid or low frequency tones were utilized to screen them. Impairment was also more likely with high-frequency sounds, but not as serious. The experts also discovered that individuals who were pre-diabetic, in a nutshell, individuals with blood sugar levels that are higher, but not high enough to be diagnosed as diabetes, were more likely by 30 percent to suffer from hearing loss than those with healthy blood sugar. A more recent 2013 meta-study (you got it, a study of studies) determined that there was a persistent association between hearing loss and diabetes, even while taking into consideration other variables.
So the link between loss of hearing and diabetes is quite well established. But why would diabetes put you at greater danger of suffering from loss of hearing? The answer isn’t really well understood. Diabetes is related to a wide range of health concerns, and in particular, the kidneys, extremities, and eyes can be harmed physically. One theory is that the disease might affect the ears in a similar manner, blood vessels in the ears being harmed. But overall health management may be the culprit. A 2015 study that investigated U.S. military veterans highlighted the link between loss of hearing and diabetes, but in particular, it discovered that individuals with unchecked diabetes, in essence, people suffered even worse if they had untreated and uncontrolled. If you are concerned that you may be pre-diabetic or are suffering from undiagnosed diabetes, it’s important to speak to a doctor and have your blood sugar checked. Similarly, if you’re having difficulty hearing, it’s a good idea to get it tested.
All right, this is not exactly a health problem, since we aren’t discussing vertigo, but experiencing a bad fall can start a cascade of health problems. Research conducted in 2012 showed a definite link between the risk of falling and hearing loss though you may not have suspected that there was a connection between the two. Evaluating a trial of over 2,000 adults ages 40 to 69, investigators found that for every 10 dB rise in loss of hearing (for reference, normal breathing is about 10 dB), the chance of falling increased 1.4X. This connection held up even for people with mild hearing loss: Those who had 25 dB hearing loss were 3 times as likely as those who had normal hearing to have had a fall within the previous 12 months.
Why would having trouble hearing cause you to fall? While our ears have a significant role to play in helping us balance, there are other reasons why loss of hearing could get you down (in this case, very literally). Although the reason for the individual’s falls wasn’t examined in this study,, it was speculated by the authors that having difficulty 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 problems hearing means you’re paying more attention to sounds than to what’s around you, it might be easy to trip and fall. What’s promising here is that managing hearing loss may potentially decrease your chance of suffering a fall.
3: High Blood Pressure
A variety of studies (like this one from 2018) have shown that hearing loss is connected to high blood pressure and some (including this 2013 study) have found that high blood pressure may actually speed up age-related hearing loss. Even after controlling for variables like if you’re a smoker or noise exposure, the link has been pretty consistently discovered. The only variable that makes a difference appears to be sex: The link between high blood pressure and loss of hearing, if your a guy, is even stronger.
Your ears are not part of your circulatory system, but they’re pretty close to it: Two main arteries are very near to the ears not to mention the tiny blood vessels inside them. This is one explanation why people with high blood pressure often suffer from 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.) But high blood pressure could also potentially be the cause of physical damage to your ears which is the leading theory behind why it would quicken hearing loss. Each beat has more pressure if your heart is pumping harder. That could possibly injure the smaller blood arteries inside your ears. Through medical intervention and changes in lifestyle, high blood pressure can be managed. But if you suspect you’re suffering from loss of hearing even if you think you’re not old enough for the age-related stuff, it’s a good decision to speak with a hearing specialist.
Chances of dementia might be higher with hearing loss. A 2013 study from Johns Hopkins University that was documented after about 2,000 individuals in their 70’s during the period of six years discovered that the danger of cognitive impairment increased by 24% with only minimal loss of hearing (about 25 dB, or slightly louder than a whisper). 2011 research by the same researchers which followed people over more than 10 years revealed that the worse a subject’s hearing was, the more likely it was that they would get dementia. (They also found a similar connection to Alzheimer’s Disease, though a less statistically substantial one.) Based on these conclusions, moderate hearing loss puts you at 3X the risk of someone with no loss of hearing; one’s danger is nearly quintupled with extreme hearing loss.
It’s frightening stuff, but it’s important to recognize that while the connection between loss of hearing and cognitive decline has been well documented, researchers have been less successful at figuring out why the two are so strongly linked. A common theory is that having trouble hearing can cause people to avoid social interactions, and that social withdrawal and lack of mental stimulation can be debilitating. A different theory is that hearing loss short circuits 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 recalling things like where you put your medication. Staying in close communication with friends and family and doing crosswords or brain games could help here, but so can dealing with hearing loss. If you’re able to hear clearly, social situations are easier to deal with, and you’ll be capable of focusing on the critical things instead of trying to understand what someone just said. So if you are coping with loss of hearing, you need to put a plan of action in place including having a hearing test.