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

Aging is one of the most typical hearing loss indicators and let’s face it, as hard as we might try, aging can’t be avoided. But did you recognize that hearing loss has also been linked to health concerns that can be treated, and in some cases, can be avoided? You may be surprised by these examples.

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 greater hearing loss when screened with mid or low-frequency sounds. High frequency impairment was also possible but less severe. It was also determined by analysts that individuals who had high blood sugar levels but not so high as to be diagnosed with diabetes, put simply, pre-diabetic, were more likely by 30 percent to suffer from hearing loss than individuals with healthy blood sugar. A more recent 2013 meta-study (you got it, a study of studies) discovered that there was a consistent association between hearing loss and diabetes, even when controlling for other variables.

So the association between hearing loss and diabetes is pretty well demonstrated. But why would diabetes put you at increased chance of suffering from loss of hearing? Science is at a bit of a loss here. Diabetes is connected to a number of health problems, and in particular, can result in physical damage to the eyes, kidneys, and extremities. One hypothesis is that the disease might affect the ears in a similar manner, blood vessels in the ears being damaged. But it might also be associated with general health management. A 2015 study that investigated U.S. military veterans highlighted the link between hearing loss and diabetes, but in particular, it found that those with uncontrolled diabetes, in essence, people suffered even worse if they had uncontrolled and untreated diabetes. It’s important to have your blood sugar tested and consult with a doctor if you think you could have undiagnosed diabetes or might be pre-diabetic. Similarly, if you’re having problems hearing, it’s a smart idea to get it examined.

2: Falling

All right, this is not exactly a health condition, since we aren’t dealing with vertigo, but going through a bad fall can start a cascade of health problems. And while you may not realize that your hearing could impact your likelihood of slipping or tripping, research from 2012 uncovered a significant link between hearing loss and fall risk. While studying over 2,000 adults between the ages of 40 to 69, investigators found that for every 10 dB rise in loss of hearing (for reference, normal breathing is about 10 dB), the risk of falling increased 1.4X. Even for individuals with slight loss of hearing the connection held up: Within the past year people with 25 dB of hearing loss were more likely to have had a fall than people with normal hearing.

Why would you fall because you are having difficulty hearing? Though our ears play an important role in helping us balance, there are other reasons why hearing loss could get you down (in this case, very literally). While this research didn’t go into what was the cause of the participant’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) may be one problem. But it could also go the other way if difficulty hearing means you’re concentrating on sounds rather than paying attention to your surroundings, it might be easy to trip and fall. What’s promising here is that treating loss of hearing may possibly decrease your risk of having a fall.

3: High Blood Pressure

Several studies (including this one from 2018) have found that loss of hearing is linked to high blood pressure and some (like this 2013 research) have observed that high blood pressure might actually quicken age-related hearing loss. It’s a connection that’s been seen fairly persistently, even when controlling for variables including whether or not you smoke or noise exposure. The only variable that matters 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: In addition to the many tiny blood vessels inside your ear, two of the body’s main arteries go right near it. This is one explanation why people with high blood pressure often experience tinnitus, the pulsing they’re hearing is ultimately their own blood pumping. (That’s why this kind of tinnitus is called pulsatile tinnitus; it’s your pulse your hearing.) The principal theory for why high blood pressure can speed up 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 injure the smaller blood arteries in your ears. Through medical intervention and changes in lifestyle, high blood pressure can be controlled. But if you think you’re experiencing hearing loss even if you think you’re too young for the age-related problems, it’s a good decision to consult a hearing care professional.

4: Dementia

Loss of hearing may put you at higher danger of dementia. 2013 research from Johns Hopkins University that was documented after almost 2,000 people in their 70’s over the course of six years discovered that the chance of cognitive impairment increased by 24% with only minor hearing loss (about 25 dB, or slightly louder than a whisper). It was also revealed, in a study from 2011 conducted by the same group of researchers, that the danger of dementia increased proportionally the worse hearing loss got. (Alzheimer’s was also found to have a similar connection, albeit a less statistically substantial one.) Based on these conclusions, moderate hearing loss puts you at three times the risk of a person with no hearing loss; severe loss of hearing raises the danger by 4 times.

However, even though experts have been successful at documenting the connection between hearing loss and cognitive decline, they still don’t know why this happens. If you can’t hear very well, it’s difficult to interact with people so in theory you will avoid social interactions, and that social isolation and lack of mental stimulation can be incapacitating. Another theory is that loss of hearing overloads your brain. In other words, trying to hear sounds around you exhausts your brain so you might not have very much energy left for remembering things like where you put your medication. Preserving social ties and doing crosswords or brain games could help here, but so can treating hearing loss. If you’re able to hear clearly, social situations become much easier to deal with, and you’ll be capable of focusing on the important things instead of attempting to understand what someone just said. So if you are coping with hearing loss, you should put a plan of action in place including having a hearing exam.

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