HEARING TIPS

Can Hearing Loss Trigger Other Medical Problems?

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

Aging is one of the most typical hearing loss clues and let’s face it, try as we might, aging can’t be avoided. But were you aware hearing loss has also been connected to health problems that can be treated, and in certain circumstances, preventable? You may be surprised by these examples.

1: Diabetes

Over 5,000 American adults were evaluated in a 2008 study which found that people who had been diagnosed with diabetes were two times as likely to suffer from mild or more hearing loss when low or mid frequency tones were applied to test them. High frequency impairment was also possible but not so severe. It was also discovered by analysts that individuals who struggled with high blood sugar levels but not high enough to be diagnosed with diabetes, in other words, pre-diabetic, were more likely by 30 % to suffer from loss of hearing than those with normal blood sugar. A more recent 2013 meta-study (yup, a study of studies) determined that the link between diabetes and loss of hearing was persistent, even when controlling for other variables.

So the link between hearing loss and diabetes is very well demonstrated. But why would diabetes put you at increased danger of getting loss of hearing? Science is somewhat at a loss here. Diabetes is related to a broad range of health problems, and particularly, the kidneys, extremities, and eyes can be harmed physically. One theory is that the disease could affect the ears in a similar way, harming blood vessels in the inner ear. But it might also be associated with general health management. A 2015 study that evaluated U.S. military veterans highlighted the link between loss of hearing and diabetes, but most notably, it revealed that those with unchecked diabetes, in other words, people suffered even worse if they had untreated and uncontrolled. If you are concerned that you might be pre-diabetic or are suffering from undiagnosed diabetes, it’s important to consult with a doctor and get your blood sugar evaluated. Similarly, if you’re having difficulty hearing, it’s a smart idea to get it examined.

2: Falling

You could have a bad fall. It’s not exactly a health issue, because it’s not vertigo but it can lead to many other complications. And though you might not realize that your hearing would affect your possibility of slipping or tripping, research from 2012 uncovered a considerable link between hearing loss and fall risk. While analyzing over 2,000 adults between the ages of 40 to 69, investigators discovered that for every 10 dB increase in hearing loss (as an example, normal breathing is about 10 dB), the risk of falling increased 1.4X. This relationship held up even for individuals with mild loss of hearing: Within the past twelve months people with 25 dB of hearing loss were more likely to have had a fall than individuals with normal hearing.

Why would you fall just because you are having difficulty hearing? There are numerous reasons why hearing struggles can lead to a fall other than the role your ears play in balance. While this study didn’t go into what had caused the participant’s falls, the authors theorized that having difficulty hearing what’s around you (and missing an important sound such as a car honking) might be one problem. But it could also go the other way if problems hearing means you’re concentrating on sounds rather than paying attention to your surroundings, it may be easy to trip and fall. The good news here is that treating loss of hearing might possibly minimize your risk of having a fall.

3: High Blood Pressure

Several studies (including this one from 2018) have demonstrated that hearing loss is connected to high blood pressure and some (like this 2013 research) have established that high blood pressure may actually speed up age-related hearing loss. Even after controlling for variables like noise exposure or if you smoke, the link has been fairly consistently revealed. Gender is the only variable that appears to make a difference: If you’re a male, the connection between high blood pressure and loss of hearing is even stronger.

Your ears are very closely connected to your circulatory system: Two main arteries are very near to the ears as well as the little blood vessels inside them. This is one reason why people who have high blood pressure often suffer from tinnitus, it’s ultimately their own blood pumping that they’re hearing. (That’s why this kind of tinnitus is called pulsatile tinnitus; it’s your own pulse your hearing.) But high blood pressure may also possibly cause physical injury to your ears which is the primary theory behind why it would quicken loss of hearing. If your heart is pumping harder, there’s more pressure every time it beats. That could possibly injure the smaller blood arteries in your ears. High blood pressure is manageable, through both medical interventions and lifestyle change. But if you suspect you’re dealing with loss of hearing even if you believe you’re not old enough for the age-related stuff, it’s a good idea to schedule an appointment with a hearing expert.

4: Dementia

Loss of hearing could put you at higher danger of dementia. 2013 research from Johns Hopkins University that was documented after about 2,000 individuals in their 70’s over the course of six years revealed that the danger of cognitive impairment increased by 24% with only slight loss of hearing (about 25 dB, or slightly louder than a whisper). It was also found, in a 2011 study conducted by the same group of researchers, that the chance of dementia increased proportionally the worse hearing loss was. (Alzheimer’s was also discovered to have a similar link, though a less statistically significant one.) Based on these conclusions, moderate loss of hearing puts you at 3 times the danger of a person who doesn’t have loss of hearing; severe hearing loss raises the risk by 4 times.

It’s scary stuff, but it’s significant to note that while the connection between loss of hearing and mental decline has been well documented, researchers have been less effective at figuring out why the two are so strongly connected. If you can’t hear very well, it’s overwhelming to socialize with people so in theory you will avoid social interactions, and that social withdrawal and lack of mental stimulation can be debilitating. Another hypothesis is that loss of hearing short circuits your brain. In other words, trying to perceive sounds around you fatigues your brain so you might not have very much juice left for remembering things like where you put your keys. Preserving social ties and doing crosswords or brain games could help here, but so can dealing with hearing loss. If you’re capable of hearing clearly, social situations become much easier to deal with, and you’ll be able to focus on the necessary stuff instead of attempting to understand what someone just said. So if you are coping with loss of hearing, you should put a plan of action in place including having a hearing exam.

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