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

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

1: Diabetes

Over 5,000 American adults were looked at in a 2008 study which revealed that people who had been diagnosed with diabetes were two times as likely to suffer from some level of hearing loss when low or mid frequency sounds were applied to screen them. Impairment was also more likely with high-frequency sounds, but not as extreme. It was also discovered by analysts that individuals who struggled with high blood sugar levels but not so high as to be diagnosed with diabetes, put simply, pre-diabetic, were more likely by 30 percent than those who had healthy blood sugar levels, to have hearing loss. A more recent 2013 meta-study (that’s right, a study of studies) determined that the connection between diabetes and hearing loss was persistent, even when when all other variables are considered.

So it’s well determined that diabetes is associated with a higher chance of loss of hearing. But why would diabetes put you at increased danger of getting loss of hearing? The answer 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 disease may affect the ears in a similar way, blood vessels in the ears being damaged. But general health management could be at fault. A 2015 study that investigated U.S. military veterans highlighted the connection between hearing loss and diabetes, but most notably, it found that individuals with uncontrolled diabetes, in other words, people suffered even worse if they had uncontrolled and untreated diabetes. If you are concerned that you might be pre-diabetic or have undiagnosed diabetes, it’s necessary to speak to a doctor and get your blood sugar checked. Similarly, if you’re having trouble hearing, it’s a good idea to get it checked out.

2: Falling

All right, this is not really a health condition, since we aren’t dealing with vertigo, but going through a bad fall can start a cascade of health concerns. And though you might not think that your hearing could impact your likelihood of slipping or tripping, a 2012 study uncovered a substantial link between hearing loss and risk of a fall. While examining over 2,000 adults between the ages of 40 to 69, investigators found 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 connection held up even for individuals with mild loss of hearing: Within the past year individuals who had 25 dB of hearing loss were more likely to have had a fall than individuals with normal hearing.

Why would having difficulty hearing cause you to fall? Even though our ears play a significant role in helping us balance, there are other reasons why loss of hearing could get you down (in this case, very literally). Although this research didn’t delve into what was the cause of the participant’s falls, the authors believed that having difficulty hearing what’s around you (and missing an important sound like a car honking) may be one issue. But if you’re having difficulties paying attention to sounds near you, your split attention means you may not be paying attention to your physical environment and that may end up in a fall. What’s promising here is that dealing with hearing loss could possibly reduce your risk of having a fall.

3: High Blood Pressure

Several studies (such as this one from 2018) have revealed that loss of hearing is connected to high blood pressure and some (including this 2013 research) have shown that high blood pressure could actually quicken age-related hearing loss. It’s a connection that’s been seen pretty consistently, even while controlling for variables such as whether or not you smoke or noise exposure. The only variable that matters appears to be sex: If you’re a man, the connection between hearing loss and high blood pressure is even stronger.

Your ears are not part of your circulatory system, but they’re darn close to it: Two main arteries are very near to the ears and additionally the tiny blood vessels inside them. This is one reason why people with high blood pressure often suffer from tinnitus, it’s actually their own blood pumping that they are hearing. (That’s why this kind of tinnitus is called pulsatile tinnitus; it’s your 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 force every time it beats. The smaller blood vessels in your ears might potentially be damaged by this. lifestyle changes and medical intervention, high blood pressure can be controlled. But if you believe you’re suffering with hearing loss even if you believe you’re not old enough for the age-related problems, it’s a good idea to schedule an appointment with a hearing expert.

4: Dementia

Hearing loss may put you at higher risk of dementia. A six year study, started in 2013 that followed 2,000 individuals in their 70’s discovered that the chance of mental impairment increased by 24% with only slight hearing loss (about 25 dB, or slightly louder than a whisper). It was also found, in a study from 2011 conducted by the same group of researchers, that the danger of dementia raised proportionally the worse hearing loss was. (Alzheimer’s was also found to have a similar connection, albeit a less statistically significant one.) Based on these findings, moderate loss of hearing puts you at 3X the danger of a person without hearing loss; severe hearing loss nearly quintuples one’s danger.

It’s scary information, but it’s important to recognize that while the link between hearing loss and cognitive decline has been well documented, scientists have been less successful at sussing out why the two are so solidly connected. A common theory is that having problems hearing can cause people to avoid social interactions, and that social withdrawal and lack of mental stimulation can be debilitating. A different theory is that hearing loss 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 recalling things such as where you put 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 capable of focusing on the important stuff instead of trying to figure out what someone just said. So if you are dealing with hearing loss, you should put a plan of action in place including having a hearing exam.

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