Source: Mayo Clinic
Hearing health impacts overall health in more ways than hearing. Hearing loss is associated with balance problems, falls, social isolation, loneliness, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and more. While connecting to one another and our physical world is absolutely vital, maintaining personal vitality means retaining our hearing and brain health, retaining our balance, retaining emotional health and personal safety.
When people can’t hear conversations, individuals with hearing loss may experience feeling embarrassment and frustration. When they can’t hear well, they often stop socializing or participating in hobbies or activities that they used to enjoy. This social isolation can lead to feelings of isolation and depression. Isolation and depression aren’t the only psychological or emotional issues to result from hearing loss. Irritability and anger are common, resulting from the inability to hear what others are saying. Fatigue is common as well; those with hearing loss are constantly exerting themselves to understand conversations. The brain spends additional effort to make sense of sounds and speech which increases stress, anxiety and tension.
Beyond emotional and psychological health, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2008 found hearing loss to be twice as common in adults with diabetes than with those without.1 Researchers suggest that people with diabetes are more prone to develop hearing loss due to poor circulation. Elevated blood sugar levels can damage blood vessels and reduce blood flow to various areas of the body. That damage could occur in the delicate structures of the inner ear and result in hearing loss.
The NIH tested over 4,700 participants’ ability to hear a range of frequencies in both ears, there was a strong correlation found between diabetes and hearing loss across all frequencies, especially in the high-frequency range. Of the participants with diabetes, 54 percent reported a hearing loss for high-frequency sounds. Diabetes is becoming an extremely common disease, causing hearing loss to also be on the rise. Because of the relationship between hearing loss risk and diabetes, it’s a good idea for people with diabetes to get their hearing tested annually to manage hearing loss as soon as it occurs.
The vestibular system, one portion of the labyrinth of the inner ear, is a sensory system that is essential to normal movement and equilibrium; it provides you with your sense of balance and an awareness of your spatial orientation. A study by Johns Hopkins determined that even mild hearing loss triples the increased risk of falls among elderly.2
A study conducted by Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that enhancing hearing improved the balance of adults with hearing loss.3 In the study, subjects who wore hearing aids performed better on balance tests when their hearing aids were turned on vs. when they were off. The study’s author attributed the results to more than just improved alertness. Professor of otolaryngology, Timothy Hullar, MD, suggested that, just as we use our sight to tell where we are in space (and sway more when it’s dark or our eyes are closed), we use sound as “auditory reference points or landmarks to help maintain balance.” When that is compromised, balance can suffer.
In the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine study linking hearing loss to a three-fold risk of falling, results suggested that treating hearing loss with hearing aids can help reduce the risk of falls in older adults.
Research data reveals a link between hearing health and cardiovascular health.4 In fact, the two often correspond. A healthy cardiovascular system appears to have a positive effect on hearing.
Our complex hearing systems are sensitive to changes in blood flow and inadequate blood flow can damage hearing. Researchers theorize that hearing loss can result from damage to blood vessels in the inner ear. Damaged blood vessels reduce blood flow, causing possible permanent damage to the structures in the inner ear. Unlike other structures in our bodies, the inner ear does not have a backup supply of blood flow, leaving it vulnerable to damage with inadequate blood flow. Professor and Vice Chair of Otolaryngology and Communication Sciences at the Medical College of Wisconsin, David R. Friedland, M.D., Ph.D. explains, “The inner ear is so sensitive to blood flow that it is possible that abnormalities in the cardiovascular system could be noted here earlier than in other less sensitive parts of the body.”
The link between hearing health and cardiovascular health is strong. Hearing loss is seldom found in isolation. Many times it is accompanied by other health conditions. The connection between hearing health and cardiovascular health has led many professionals to believe the ear may be a window into the heart.
According to audiologist Charles E. Bishop, Assistant Professor in the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s Department of Otolaryngology and Communicative Sciences, “Hearing health should not be assessed in a vacuum. There is simply too much evidence that hearing loss is related to cardiovascular disease and other health conditions. It’s time we maximized the information we have in order to benefit the individual’s overall well-being.”
Research from Miami University found that with a higher level of cardiovascular fitness, older participants also had better hearing (June 2010 American Journal of Audiology). An active lifestyle can improve cardiovascular health and increase blood flow to the ear. According to the American Journal of Medicine, increased physical activity can actually decrease your risk for hearing loss. The American Heart Association also recommends maintaining a healthy diet and keeping blood pressure within a healthy range.
If you are beyond the age of 60, work in a noisy environment, or have frequent exposure to loud noises, an annual hearing check is recommended. Individuals with risk factors for developing heart disease and those who have already been diagnosed should be especially vigilant about hearing health.