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

Aging is one of the most common hearing loss clues and let’s be truthful, as hard as we might try, we can’t escape aging. But did you know that loss of hearing has also been linked to health problems that are treatable, and in many cases, can be avoided? You could be surprised by these examples.

1: Diabetes

A widely-quoted 2008 study that evaluated over 5,000 American adults revealed that diabetes diagnosed individuals were two times as likely to suffer from mild or more hearing loss when mid or low frequency tones were used to test them. Impairment was also more probable with high-frequency sounds, but not as serious. The investigators also determined that individuals who were pre-diabetic, in other words, those with blood sugar levels that are higher, but not high enough to be diagnosed as diabetes, were more likely by 30 percent than individuals with healthy blood sugar levels, to have hearing loss. A more recent 2013 meta-study (yup, a study of studies) discovered that there was a absolutely consistent link between loss of hearing and diabetes, even while taking into account other variables.

So the connection between loss of hearing and diabetes is pretty well demonstrated. But why would you be at increased risk of getting diabetes just because you have loss of hearing? The reason isn’t really well understood. Diabetes is associated with a wide variety of health issues, and particularly, the eyes, extremities and kidneys can be damaged physically. One hypothesis is that the the ears might be similarly impacted by the condition, blood vessels in the ears being damaged. But overall health management could be the culprit. A 2015 study underscored the link between hearing loss and diabetes in U.S veterans, but particularly, it discovered that those with unchecked diabetes, in essence, people suffered worse if they had uncontrolled and untreated diabetes. It’s necessary to have your blood sugar checked and speak to a doctor if you believe you may have undiagnosed diabetes or may be pre-diabetic. Also, if you’re having problems hearing, it’s a good idea to get it examined.

2: Falling

OK, this is not really a health issue, since we aren’t discussing vertigo, but going through a bad fall can initiate a cascade of health issues. And though you may not think that your hearing would impact your possibility of slipping or tripping, a 2012 study uncovered a considerable connection between hearing loss and risk of a fall. Looking at a trial of over 2,000 adults ages 40 to 69, researchers discovered that for every 10 dB rise in hearing loss (for reference, normal breathing is about 10 dB), the chance of falling increased 1.4X. This relationship held up even for individuals with mild hearing loss: Within the previous twelve months people with 25 dB of hearing loss were more likely to have fallen than individuals with normal hearing.

Why would having difficulty hearing make you fall? There are numerous reasons why hearing problems can lead to a fall besides the role your ears play in balance. Even though this research didn’t delve into what had caused the participant’s falls, it was theorized by the authors that having problems hearing what’s around you (and missing an important sound like a car honking) could be one issue. But if you’re struggling to pay attention to sounds around you, your split attention means you might not be paying attention to your physical environment and that may lead to a fall. What’s promising here is that treating loss of hearing might potentially decrease your chance of suffering a fall.

3: High Blood Pressure

Several studies (like this one from 2018) have demonstrated that hearing loss is connected to high blood pressure and some (including this 2013 study) have observed that high blood pressure could actually accelerate age-related hearing loss. It’s a connection that’s been seen fairly consistently, even while controlling for variables such as noise exposure and whether you’re a smoker. The only variable that is important appears to be gender: The link betweenhearing loss and high blood pressure, if your a man, is even stronger.

Your ears are very closely connected to your circulatory system: along with the numerous little blood vessels inside your ear, two of the body’s main arteries run right near it. This is one explanation why people with high blood pressure often suffer from tinnitus, the pulsing they’re hearing is ultimately their own blood pumping. (That’s why this kind of tinnitus is called pulsatile tinnitus; you’re hearing your pulse.) The leading theory behind why high blood pressure could speed up hearing loss is that high blood pressure can also cause permanent injury to your ears. Each beat has more force if your heart is pumping harder. That could possibly damage the smaller blood arteries in your ears. High blood pressure is manageable, through both lifestyle changes and medical interventions. But if you think you’re suffering with loss of hearing even if you believe you’re too young for the age-related stuff, it’s a good decision to consult a hearing care professional.

4: Dementia

Hearing loss might put you at higher risk of dementia. A six year study, started in 2013 that analyzed 2,000 individuals in their 70’s revealed that the chance of mental impairment increased by 24% with just slight loss of hearing (about 25 dB, or slightly louder than a whisper). It was also discovered, in a study from 2011 conducted by the same research group, that the risk of dementia increased proportionally the worse hearing loss became. (Alzheimer’s was also discovered to have a similar link, albeit a less statistically substantial one.) Based on these conclusions, moderate hearing loss puts you at three times the risk of somebody with no hearing loss; severe hearing loss raises the risk by 4 times.

However, though experts have been able to document the connection between hearing loss and cognitive decline, they still don’t know why this takes place. If you can’t hear very well, it’s hard to interact with people so the theory is you will avoid social interactions, and that social withdrawal and lack of mental stimulation can be incapacitating. Another theory 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 energy left for recalling things like where you put your medication. Preserving social ties and doing crosswords or brain games could help here, but so can dealing with hearing loss. Social situations become much more overwhelming when you are struggling to hear what people are saying. So if you are coping with hearing loss, you need to put a plan of action in place including having a hearing test.

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