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

Aging is one of the most typical indicators of hearing loss and let’s face it, try as we may, we can’t avoid aging. But did you know that loss of hearing can lead to health concerns that can be treated, and in many cases, can be prevented? You might be surprised by these examples.

1: Diabetes

A widely-quoted 2008 study that examined over 5,000 American adults found that individuals who had been diagnosed with diabetes were two times as likely to suffer from mild or greater hearing loss when tested with mid or low-frequency sounds. Impairment was also more likely with high-frequency sounds, but not as severe. It was also revealed by investigators that individuals who struggled with high blood sugar levels but not high enough to be defined as diabetes, in other words, pre-diabetic, were more likely by 30 percent to suffer from hearing loss than those who had healthy blood sugar. A more recent 2013 meta-study (you got it, a study of studies) found that the link between loss of hearing and diabetes was persistent, even while controlling for other variables.

So it’s solidly established that diabetes is associated with a higher danger of hearing loss. But why should you be at increased danger of getting diabetes simply because you have loss of hearing? The reason isn’t really well understood. Diabetes is associated with a number of health issues, and in particular, the eyes, extremities and kidneys can be physically damaged. One theory is that the the ears could be likewise impacted by the condition, hurting blood vessels in the inner ear. But it might also be related to general health management. A 2015 study that looked at U.S. military veterans highlighted the link between hearing loss and diabetes, but particularly, it found that those with unchecked diabetes, in other words, that those with untreated and uncontrolled diabetes, it found, suffered more. It’s important to have your blood sugar checked and speak with a doctor if you think you could have undiagnosed diabetes or might be pre-diabetic. It’s a good idea to have your hearing checked if you’re having a hard time hearing also.

2: Falling

OK, this is not really a health condition, since we aren’t dealing with vertigo, but experiencing a bad fall can trigger a cascade of health issues. A study performed in 2012 discovered a definite connection between the chance of falling and hearing loss though you might not have suspected that there was a connection between the two. Examining a sample of over 2,000 adults ages 40 to 69, scientists found that for every 10 dB increase in loss of hearing (for reference, normal breathing is about 10 dB), the risk of falling increased 1.4X. This connection held up even for individuals with mild loss of hearing: Within the past year people who had 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? Even though our ears play a significant role in helping us balance, there are other reasons why hearing loss could get you down (in this case, quite literally). Though the exact reason for the individual’s falls wasn’t looked at in this study,, the authors theorized that having trouble hearing what’s around you (and missing a car honking or other significant sounds) may 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 dealing with loss of hearing might possibly lessen your chance of having a fall.

3: High Blood Pressure

Several studies (like this one from 2018) have revealed that hearing loss is linked to high blood pressure and some (like this 2013 study) have observed that high blood pressure may actually speed up age-related hearing loss. It’s a connection that’s been seen pretty persistently, even while controlling for variables including noise exposure and whether you’re a smoker. The only variable that is important appears to be gender: If you’re a man, the connection between high blood pressure and hearing loss is even stronger.

Your ears are quite closely related to your circulatory system: Two main arteries are very near to the ears and additionally the little blood vessels inside them. This is one explanation why individuals with high blood pressure often experience 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 potentially cause physical damage to your ears which is the leading theory behind why it would accelerate loss of hearing. If your heart is pumping harder, there’s more pressure behind each beat. 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 problems, it’s a good move to schedule an appointment with a hearing expert.

4: Dementia

Loss of hearing might put you at higher risk of dementia. A six year study, started in 2013 that analyzed 2,000 individuals in their 70’s discovered that the risk of mental impairment increased by 24% with only minimal hearing loss (about 25 dB, or slightly louder than a whisper). 2011 research by the same researchers which analyzed people over more than 10 years revealed that the worse a subject’s hearing was, the more probably it was that he or she would develop dementia. (They also found a similar connection to Alzheimer’s Disease, albeit a less statistically significant one.) Based on these findings, moderate loss of hearing puts you at 3 times the danger of someone without loss of hearing; one’s danger is raised by nearly 4 times with severe loss of hearing.

It’s scary stuff, but it’s essential to note that while the link between loss of hearing and cognitive decline has been well recognized, researchers have been less successful at sussing out why the two are so solidly linked. If you can’t hear well, it’s hard to interact with people so in theory you will avoid social situations, and that social withdrawal and lack of mental stimulation can be debilitating. A different theory is that loss of hearing short circuits your brain. Essentially, because your brain is putting so much energy into understanding the sounds near you, you may not have very much juice left for remembering things such as where you left your keys. Staying in close communication with friends and family and keeping the brain active and challenged could help here, but so can dealing with hearing loss. If you’re able to hear clearly, social situations become much easier to deal with, and you’ll be able to focus on the important things instead of attempting to figure out what someone just said. So if you are coping with loss of hearing, you should put a plan of action in place including getting a hearing test.

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