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

Aging is one of the most typical signals of hearing loss and truth be told, try as we might, we can’t stop aging. But did you recognize that hearing loss can lead to health problems that can be managed, and in certain circumstances, avoidable? You may be surprised by these examples.

1: Diabetes

A widely-quoted 2008 study that studied over 5,000 American adults found that people who had been diagnosed with diabetes were twice as likely to have mild or more hearing loss when analyzed with low or mid-frequency sounds. High frequency impairment was also likely but less severe. The analysts also discovered that individuals who were pre-diabetic, put simply, those with blood sugar levels that are elevated, but not high enough to be diagnosed as diabetes, were 30 percent more likely to suffer from loss of hearing than those who had healthy blood sugar. A more recent 2013 meta-study (you got it, a study of studies) discovered that the relationship between diabetes and loss of hearing was persistent, even while controlling for other variables.

So the association between loss of hearing and diabetes is quite well established. But why should diabetes put you at greater risk of getting hearing loss? The reason isn’t really well understood. Diabetes is connected to a wide variety of health concerns, and particularly, can result in physical harm to the extremities, eyes and kidneys. One theory is that the disease could impact the ears in a similar manner, blood vessels in the ears being harmed. But overall health management may be to blame. A 2015 study that investigated U.S. military veterans highlighted the link between hearing loss and diabetes, but particularly, it revealed that individuals with uncontrolled diabetes, in essence, that those with uncontrolled and untreated diabetes, it found, suffered more. It’s important to get your blood sugar analyzed and consult with a doctor if you think you could have undiagnosed diabetes or might be pre-diabetic. By the same token, if you’re having difficulty hearing, it’s a smart idea to get it checked out.

2: Falling

All right, this is not exactly a health problem, since we aren’t dealing with vertigo, but going through a bad fall can initiate a cascade of health issues. And though you may not think that your hearing could affect your likelihood of slipping or tripping, research from 2012 revealed a substantial connection between hearing loss and fall risk. While examining over 2,000 adults between the ages of 40 to 69, investigators found that for every 10 dB increase in loss of hearing (as an example, normal breathing is about 10 dB), the risk of falling increased 1.4X. Even for individuals with minimal 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 should having difficulty hearing make you fall? While our ears play an important role in helping us balance, there are other reasons why hearing loss could get you down (in this case, quite literally). Though this research didn’t go into what had caused the subject’s falls, the authors speculated that having problems hearing what’s around you (and missing a car honking or other important sounds) could be one problem. But it could also go the other way if difficulty hearing means you’re paying more attention to sounds than to your surroundings, it might be easy to trip and fall. The good news here is that treating loss of hearing may potentially decrease your risk of suffering a fall.

3: High Blood Pressure

A variety of studies (including this one from 2018) have found that hearing loss is linked to high blood pressure and some (like this 2013 research) have found that high blood pressure could actually accelerate age-related hearing loss. It’s a connection that’s been found fairly consistently, even while controlling for variables including whether or not you smoke or noise exposure. The only variable that makes a difference appears to be sex: If you’re a guy, the link between loss of hearing and high blood pressure is even stronger.

Your ears are quite closely related to your circulatory system: Two main arteries are very near to the ears as well as the tiny blood vessels inside them. This is one reason why individuals who have high blood pressure often experience tinnitus, it’s actually their own blood pumping that they’re hearing. (That’s why this kind of tinnitus is called pulsatile tinnitus; it’s your pulse your hearing.) The leading theory for why high blood pressure might quicken loss of hearing is that high blood pressure can also cause permanent injury to your ears. Each beat has more pressure if your heart is pumping harder. The smaller blood vessels in your ears could possibly be damaged by this. High blood pressure is controllable, through both medical interventions and lifestyle change. But if you suspect you’re experiencing hearing loss even if you believe you’re not old enough for the age-related stuff, it’s a good decision to speak with a hearing specialist.

4: Dementia

Loss of hearing could 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 danger of mental impairment increased by 24% with only slight hearing loss (about 25 dB, or slightly louder than a whisper). 2011 research by the same researchers which followed subjects over more than a decade discovered that the worse a subject’s hearing was, the more likely it was that they would develop dementia. (Alzheimer’s was also found to have a similar connection, even though it was less significant.) Based on these findings, moderate loss of hearing puts you at 3 times the danger of somebody who doesn’t have hearing loss; one’s chance is nearly quintupled with significant loss of hearing.

It’s frightening information, but it’s important to note that while the link between hearing loss and cognitive decline has been well recognized, researchers have been less successful at sussing out why the two are so solidly connected. If you can’t hear very well, it’s difficult to interact with people so the theory is you will avoid social interactions, and that social isolation and lack of mental stimulation can be incapacitating. A different hypothesis is that hearing loss overloads your brain. Essentially, because your brain is putting so much energy into understanding the sounds near you, you might not have very much energy left for remembering 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 loss of hearing. If you’re able to hear clearly, social situations become much easier to handle, and you’ll be capable of focusing on the necessary things instead of trying to understand what someone just said. So if you are coping with hearing loss, you need to put a plan of action in place including getting a hearing exam.

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