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

Aging is one of the most common hearing loss clues and let’s face it, as hard as we may try, we can’t escape aging. But did you know that loss of hearing can lead to health problems that are treatable, and in some cases, can be prevented? You could be surprised by these examples.

1: Diabetes

Over 5,000 American adults were examined in a 2008 study which discovered 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. Impairment was also more probable with high-frequency sounds, but not as severe. The researchers 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 hearing loss than people with normal blood sugar. A more recent 2013 meta-study (you got it, a study of studies) found that the link between diabetes and hearing loss was persistent, even when controlling for other variables.

So the association between loss of hearing and diabetes is pretty well demonstrated. But why would diabetes put you at greater danger of getting hearing loss? The reason isn’t really well known. Diabetes is associated with a broad range of health issues, and notably, can cause physical harm to the extremities, eyes and kidneys. One hypothesis is that the the ears may be likewise impacted by the condition, damaging blood vessels in the inner ear. But general health management may be to blame. A 2015 study highlighted the connection between loss of hearing and diabetes in U.S veterans, but most notably, it discovered that people with unchecked diabetes, in other words, that those with untreated and uncontrolled diabetes, it discovered, suffered worse. If you are concerned that you may be pre-diabetic or are suffering from undiagnosed diabetes, it’s essential to consult with a doctor and get your blood sugar evaluated. It’s a smart idea to have your hearing tested if you’re having difficulty hearing too.

2: Falling

OK, this is not really a health problem, since we aren’t discussing vertigo, but having a bad fall can start a cascade of health concerns. Research carried out in 2012 disclosed a definite link between the danger of falling and hearing loss though you may not have suspected that there was a link between the two. Evaluating a sample of over 2,000 adults between the ages of 40 and 69, investigators discovered that for every 10 dB increase in loss of hearing (as an example, normal breathing is about 10 dB), the chance of falling increased 1.4X. Even for individuals with mild loss of hearing the relationship held up: Within the previous twelve months people with 25 dB of hearing loss were more likely to have had a fall than people with normal hearing.

Why would you fall just because you are having problems hearing? There are quite a few reasons why hearing issues can lead to a fall besides the role your ears play in balance. Though this research didn’t go into what was the cause of the participant’s falls, the authors theorized that having trouble hearing what’s around you (and missing a car honking or other significant sounds) might be one problem. But if you’re struggling to pay attention to sounds near you, your split attention means you might be paying less attention to your physical environment and that could lead to a fall. What’s promising here is that managing loss of hearing may potentially minimize your risk of suffering a fall.

3: High Blood Pressure

A number of studies (like this one from 2018) have demonstrated that hearing loss is connected to high blood pressure and some (like this 2013 study) have observed that high blood pressure might actually accelerate age-related hearing loss. It’s a connection that’s been seen rather persistently, even when controlling for variables such as noise exposure and whether you’re a smoker. Gender is the only variable that appears to matter: The connection between high blood pressure and loss of hearing, if your a man, is even stronger.

Your ears are quite closely related to your circulatory system: along with the many tiny blood vessels inside your ear, two of the body’s main arteries run right by it. This is one reason why people with high blood pressure often experience tinnitus, it’s ultimately their own blood pumping that they are hearing. (That’s why this kind of tinnitus is called pulsatile tinnitus; you’re hearing your pulse.) The leading theory behind why high blood pressure might accelerate loss of hearing is that high blood pressure can also cause permanent injury to your ears. If your heart is pumping harder, there’s more force every time it beats. The smaller blood vessels in your ears may possibly be injured by this. High blood pressure is controllable, through both lifestyle changes and medical interventions. But if you believe you’re experiencing hearing loss even if you think you’re too young for the age-related stuff, it’s a good move to speak with a hearing specialist.

4: Dementia

Hearing loss may put you at higher risk of dementia. 2013 research from Johns Hopkins University that followed about 2,000 people in their 70’s during the period of six years revealed that the chance of mental impairment increased by 24% with just minimal loss of hearing (about 25 dB, or slightly louder than a whisper). It was also found, in a study from 2011 conducted by the same research group, that the danger of dementia raised proportionally the worse hearing loss got. (Alzheimer’s was also discovered to have a similar connection, albeit a less statistically significant one.) moderate hearing loss, based on these findings, puts you at three times the risk of someone who doesn’t have hearing loss; one’s risk is nearly quintupled with severe hearing loss.

It’s frightening stuff, but it’s significant to note that while the link between hearing loss and mental decline has been well recognized, scientists have been less successful at sussing out why the two are so strongly linked. A common theory is that having problems hearing can cause people to avoid social situations, and that social isolation and lack of mental stimulation can be incapacitating. A different hypothesis is that hearing loss overloads your brain. In essence, because your brain is putting so much of its recourses into comprehending the sounds near you, you might not have much juice left for remembering things like where you put your medication. Maintaining social ties and keeping the brain active and challenged could help here, but so can dealing with hearing loss. Social circumstances become much more overwhelming when you are contending to hear what people are saying. So if you are dealing with loss of hearing, you need to put a plan of action in place including getting a hearing exam.