Hearing loss and its link to overall health

How you cope with hearing loss is unique to you and influenced by certain factors, such as early versus late onset, gradual vs. sudden, the severity of the loss, and your personality. Regardless of these factors, evidence shows untreated hearing loss can cause significant problems. Negative repercussions include feelings of depression, anxiety, frustration, social isolation, and physical health issues such as injuries from falls. Some studies have demonstrated a clear cause and effect, while others have found a statistically significant association between untreated hearing loss and specific physical and mental health conditions. 

Cognitive, social, and psychological side effects

Cognitive decline:

Mild hearing impairment nearly doubles the risk of developing dementia. This risk is threefold with moderate hearing loss and fivefold when hearing loss is severe. Increasing evidence suggests a strong link between age-related hearing loss and late-life cognitive issues. And age-related hearing loss that starts in middle age appears to increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and dementia in older age. Studies suggest peripheral hearing alterations associated with age-related hearing loss increase the risk of cognitive impairment due to:

  • Structural brain changes
  • Changes in the central auditory system
  • Reduced sensory stimulation of the brain

A 2019 study, based on the US population, found a strong link between age-related hearing loss and a decline in visual short-term memory binding (VSTMB). VTSMB is a potential biomarker for preclinical dementia linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

Additional research is needed to pinpoint the precise links between hearing loss and cognitive issues. Nevertheless, strong evidence suggests early intervention, lifestyle changes, and hearing loss management and correction could delay or prevent a third of Alzheimer’s diagnoses worldwide.

11%

of people with mild to greater hearing loss suffer from depression

Isolation and depression:

A well-researched theory is that hearing impairment leads to social isolation, loneliness, and depression. When it’s difficult to communicate, this can greatly limit your ability to socialize and cause social withdrawal and depression. Studies indicate age-related hearing loss is among the most common chronic conditions associated with late-life depression, particularly in women. Several studies have shown a direct correlation between a person’s degree of hearing loss and depressive symptoms. In a large scale study, the prevalence of depression was 4.9% in people with excellent hearing, but this increased to 11.4% in those with mild to greater hearing loss.

The impact of hearing loss on physical health

In addition to cognitive and mental health issues, a number of recent studies have linked untreated hearing loss to potentially disabling physical conditions, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, sleep apnea, and falls in older adults. Hearing loss shares many of the same traits as other chronic diseases, for example, diabetes. Both conditions are invisible, progressive, and often incurable, yet treatable.

Obesity

A 2019 study, based on the US population, showed that a higher body mass index, and especially a higher fat mass index, was linked to age-related hearing loss. Conversely, data indicated maintaining a healthy body composition may reduce the effects of age-related hearing loss. An animal study found narrowed blood vessels in a heavily vascularized part of the inner ear. Research suggests the connection between age-related hearing loss and obesity in humans may be due to the mechanical strain on the capillary walls caused by fat tissue.

Diabetes

A systematic review revealed that the prevalence of hearing loss in people with diabetes was more than twice than that of people without the disease. Experts believe the vascular effects of diabetes damage the blood supply to the inner ear, resulting in sensorineural hearing loss. 

Hypertension (High blood pressure)

A large-scale study on males only found that hearing thresholds and percentages of hearing loss at low, intermediate, and high frequencies grew gradually with increasing blood pressure levels. An earlier study on middle-aged individuals indicated that 46.8% of people with hearing loss had hypertension, versus 29.9% of people with normal hearing. Current evidence linking hypertension to sensorineural high-frequency inner hearing loss suggests other risk factors likely play a role, such as age, coronary artery disease, diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol, smoking, and noise exposure.

Heart Disease

Six decades of research have shown a connection between cardiovascular and hearing health. A 2014 study found that the risk of hearing impairment was much greater in people with atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) than people without blood vessel disease. The vessels of the inner ear need an oxygen-rich nutrient supply to function normally, and cardiovascular health problems inhibit this. 

Sleep Apnea

A study on nearly 14,000 adults found that sleep apnea was independently associated with a 31% increase in high frequency hearing loss, a 90% increase in low frequency hearing loss, and a 38% increase in combined high and low frequency hearing loss. Potential reasons for this link include adverse effects of sleep apnea on the vascular supply to the inner ear or noise trauma from snoring.

Falls in Older Adults

Even mild hearing loss triples the risk of an accidental fall, and this risk increases by 140% for every additional 10 decibels of hearing loss. This is a serious matter, because death rates in older adults related to falls increased 30% from 2007 to 2016 and contribute to more than $50 billion each year in medical costs. Hearing loss negatively impacts a person’s balance in the following ways:

  • People are less aware of their surroundings
  • Spatial awareness decreases, making it harder to determine where one’s body is in relation to nearby objects
  • The brain uses more resources for hearing and interpreting speech and sound, so fewer resources are available for gait or balance

The next steps

Many of the detrimental side effects of hearing loss are preventable by treating it. If you or a loved one is suffering from hearing loss, don’t take this lightly. Schedule an appointment with a licensed hearing care professional to help prevent hearing loss from cascading into a wide array of other serious health problems.

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