Hearing loss can be challenging enough with its profound effect on communication, but did you know it can go hand in hand with other chronic conditions such as diabetes, obesity, and dementia?
Such comorbidities, or coexisting diseases, make regular hearing checkups all the more important — just as they are for your eyes and teeth — to catch potential problems early and address them for overall wellness.
Which comorbidity do you want to learn more about?
Research has long pointed to links between common comorbidities such as hearing loss and decreased brain functioning over time, but some of the statistics may surprise you:
- On average, seniors with hearing loss experience significantly reduced cognitive function 3.2 years before their standard-hearing counterparts.
- Hearing-impaired seniors experience thinking and memory recall issues 30% to 40% faster than their standard-hearing counterparts.
- Older adults with a hearing disability may lose over a cubic centimeter of brain tissue annually beyond normal shrinkage.
- Those with hearing loss are two, three, or nearly five times as likely to develop dementia, depending on the severity of their hearing impairment.
The causal relationship between hearing loss and cognitive decline isn’t completely clear, but some research suggests that addressing hearing loss could cut dementia cases by a third.
That ringing, humming, buzzing, or clicking in your ear that no one else seems to hear? It may even make a sound in your ear like wind, or like someone is whistling in your ear. These sounds could be tinnitus, a common condition affecting an estimated 8% to 25% of adults worldwide. It can touch people of all ages, however, and is typically symptomatic of other issues such as:
- Thyroid problems
- Noise exposure
- Earwax blockage
- Hearing loss
In fact, many people experiencing tinnitus also have hearing loss. The good news? Advanced hearing technology can often help people effectively manage the sometimes debilitating combination of hearing loss and tinnitus.
It’s probably easy to see that the eyes and ears work together as a team.
Both help you perceive the world around you, with hearing even enhancing the sense of sight. They both also help you — in conjunction with your joints, muscles, and brain — stay balanced and steady on your feet.
In addition, research points to links between age-related vision and hearing impairment. One study found that even after accounting for age, the two conditions are somehow associated and “have a cumulative effect on function and well-being, significantly affecting both physical and mental domains.”
“…[eye and ear health] have a cumulative effect on function and well-being, significantly affecting both physical and mental domains.”
Many people don’t realize that hearing impairment can lead to vestibular, or balance, problems — which can lead to falls. In fact, research has shown that falls are more common among those with hearing loss.
In one study of more than 2,000 adults ages 40 to 69:
- Patients with a mild hearing loss were nearly three times as likely to have reported a fall in the previous year.
- Every 10-decibel increase in hearing loss also meant a 1.4-fold increase in the odds of a fall the prior year.
Balance and equilibrium are controlled by the body’s vestibular system, involving parts of the brain, eyes, inner ear, and sensory systems, including skin, joints, and muscles. Keeping your hearing in the best shape possible can help reduce the risk of balance issues.
Like hearing loss, which affects an estimated 466 million people, per the World Health Organization (WHO), cardiovascular disease — including heart disease and stroke — is a global public-health challenge. It’s the No. 1 killer worldwide, with 17.7 million deaths, per WHO estimates, and is also linked to hearing loss.
Exactly how heart disease and hearing loss are connected isn’t yet conclusive in all cases, but researchers have found that:
- Hearing loss is more prevalent among those who have a history of circulatory disorders, such as cardiovascular disease, than among those who don’t.
- Cardiovascular disease can cause decreased hearing sensitivity by actually restricting blood flow to the structures of the inner ear. These structures require blood flow for nourishment.
- People with heart disease are 54% more likely to experience a hearing loss, according to one study — even more so if they’ve suffered a heart attack.
Some risk factors such as age, gender, and family history can’t be helped, but healthy choices such as avoiding tobacco, choosing a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and getting regular checkups can make a difference in helping prevent either condition.
“..healthy choices such as avoiding tobacco, choosing a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and getting regular checkups can make a difference in helping prevent either condition.”
Both hypertension and hearing loss affect millions of people and can take a toll on quality of life, but keeping your blood pressure down could help keep your hearing up.
One study of more than 270 men and women ages 45 to 64, for example, found a strong relationship between high blood pressure and age-related hearing impairment, with hypertensive patients having a higher threshold below which they couldn’t hear — indicating hearing loss.
The study didn’t pinpoint the causal link between the two conditions but suggested that hypertension may damage inner-ear blood vessels, accelerating age-related hearing loss.
Eating a balanced diet, staying active, keeping stress in check, keeping within a normal blood pressure range, and addressing hearing problems early can go a long way in taking care of your circulatory system and your hearing health.
“…keeping within a normal blood pressure range, and addressing hearing problems early can go a long way in taking care of your circulatory system and your hearing health.”
Smoking, the most preventable cause of death in the U.S. and Canada and the culprit behind most lung cancer cases, can also increase the chances of developing a hearing impairment — even without exposure to occupational noise.
With tobacco linked to various health conditions ranging from certain cancers, coronary heart disease, and stroke to emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and other serious conditions, it’s no wonder the list of reasons to quit smoking continues to grow.
Those who smoke are at greater risk of hearing loss than nonsmokers. The best defense: Reduce or eliminate tobacco use altogether.
It’s no secret that obesity — which affects some 650 million-plus adults and an estimated 380 million-plus young people up to age 19 — can raise the risk of stroke, heart disease, diabetes, and other serious health problems, but it’s also potentially linked to hearing impairment.
Scientists are still exploring possible cause-effect relationships between the two conditions, but theories include the stress that excess weight can inflict on the circulatory system, in turn impacting the auditory system.
That said, one study published in 2016 showed hearing loss to be more common among two groups at opposite ends of the weight spectrum — those categorized as underweight and those considered severely obese. Prevalence among the average-weight, overweight, and obese groups wasn’t quite as pronounced.
“One study showed hearing loss to be more common among those categorized as underweight and those considered severely obese.”
Hearing loss is twice as common among people living with type 1 and type 2 diabetes, a chronic metabolic disease that isn’t yet curable but can be managed.
Much like presbycusis, or age-related hearing loss, diabetes-connected hearing issues commonly take a toll on higher-frequency hearing, potentially affecting the ability to understand speech in noisy settings such as restaurants and parties.
Diabetes-associated hearing loss could affect one or both ears, may occur suddenly or gradually, and could appear with or without balance problems of the inner ear, but routine hearing checks can help catch potential issues early.
As evidence of links between the two conditions continues to grow, it’s recommended that annual hearing evaluations be a standard for individuals with either type of diabetes.
Osteoporosis — a potentially debilitating disease that affects bone health and can cut across all ages but primarily affects those in their 50s and 60s — may nearly double the risk of sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL), according to researchers.
Science hasn’t yet concluded that osteoporosis actually causes SSHL, but studies have long indicated a connection between the two. More recently, researchers in Taiwan who published an investigation in 2015 found that:
- Those with osteoporosis had a 1.76-fold risk of experiencing sudden sensorineural hearing loss.
- Patients at seemingly greatest risk were adults 50 and older, women, and, possibly, those with hypertension and osteoporosis.
A causal relationship between the two conditions might not yet be conclusive, but there’s no doubt that taking good care of your bones and ears — for example, avoiding tobacco, exercising regularly, maintaining an appropriate weight, and eating healthfully — can help curb your risks.
Medications and other chemicals, such as some chemotherapy drugs, can damage the inner ear. It’s called ototoxicity, which can lead to hearing loss, tinnitus, and balance disorders. More than 750 types of chemicals are suspected ototoxicants — and there could be others yet to be identified — so awareness plays a big role in reducing ototoxic effects and risks.
There are too many potential ototoxicants to name here, but agencies such as the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration group them into five categories:
- Pharmaceuticals, such as loop diuretics, selected analgesics, some chemotherapy medications, and certain antibiotics
- Solvents, such as toluene, ethylbenzene, and trichloroethylene
- Asphyxiants, such as carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, and tobacco smoke
- Nitriles, such as 3-butenenitrile, cis-2-pentenenitrile, and acrylonitrile
- Metals and compounds, such as mercury compounds, germanium dioxide, and lead
Avoiding the chemical source can help but isn’t always possible, so check with your provider when taking medications; handle chemicals as necessary with care; and get a hearing check before taking ototoxic medications, if any changes in hearing or balance occur, and throughout your treatment.
As you can see, hearing loss isn’t an isolated issue. It can affect your overall health and well-being.
If you have questions or would like to schedule a hearing evaluation, don’t wait. Please contact Mission Audiology today. We’re here to help!