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

Aging is one of the most common signals of hearing loss and truth be told, try as we may, aging can’t be avoided. But were you aware loss of hearing has also been linked to health issues that are treatable, and in certain circumstances, can be avoided? You could be surprised by these examples.

1: Diabetes

Over 5,000 American adults were evaluated in a 2008 study which discovered that people who had been diagnosed with diabetes were two times as likely to suffer from some degree of hearing loss when tested with mid or low-frequency sounds. Impairment was also more likely with high-frequency sounds, but not as extreme. It was also determined by analysts that individuals who had high blood sugar levels but not high enough to be defined as diabetes, in other words, pre-diabetic, were more likely by 30 % to have loss of hearing than people with healthy blood sugar. A more recent 2013 meta-study (you got it, a study of studies) found that there was a persistent association between loss of hearing and diabetes, even while taking into consideration other variables.

So the association between loss of hearing and diabetes is pretty well established. But why would you be at increased risk of getting diabetes just because you suffer from hearing loss? Science is at a bit of a loss here. Diabetes is linked to a wide range of health problems, and notably, the eyes, extremities and kidneys can be physically harmed. One theory is that the condition may affect the ears in a similar manner, damaging blood vessels in the inner ear. But overall health management may be the culprit. A 2015 study highlighted the link between diabetes and hearing loss in U.S veterans, but particularly, it found that individuals with uncontrolled diabetes, in essence, that those with uncontrolled and untreated diabetes, it discovered, suffered worse. If you are worried that you might be pre-diabetic or have undiagnosed diabetes, it’s important to talk to a doctor and have your blood sugar checked. Also, if you’re having problems hearing, it’s a good idea to get it examined.

2: Falling

All right, this is not really a health issue, since we aren’t discussing vertigo, but having a bad fall can start a cascade of health problems. Research performed in 2012 found a definite connection between the danger of falling and hearing loss though you may not have thought that there was a relationship between the two. While studying over 2,000 adults between the ages of 40 to 69, researchers discovered that for every 10 dB increase in loss of hearing (for reference, normal breathing is about 10 dB), the danger of falling increased 1.4X. This relationship held up even for people with mild loss of hearing: Those who had 25 dB hearing loss were 3 times as likely as those who had normal hearing to have fallen within the past twelve months.

Why should having problems hearing cause you to fall? There are a number of reasons why hearing problems can lead to a fall besides the role your ears play in balance. While this research didn’t go into what had caused the participant’s falls, the authors believed that having problems hearing what’s going on around you you (and missing a car honking or other important sounds) could be one problem. But if you’re having difficulties paying attention to sounds near you, your split attention means you may be paying less attention to your physical environment and that could end up in a fall. The good news here is that treating hearing loss might possibly decrease your chance of suffering a fall.

3: High Blood Pressure

Several studies (including this one from 2018) have found that hearing loss is linked to high blood pressure and some (including this 2013 research) have established that high blood pressure may actually accelerate age-related hearing loss. Even after controlling for variables like noise exposure or if you smoke, the link has been fairly consistently found. Gender is the only variable that seems to matter: The link between high blood pressure and loss of hearing, if your a guy, is even stronger.

Your ears are not part of your circulatory system, but they’re pretty close to it: along with the countless little blood vessels in your ear, two of the body’s main arteries go right near it. This is one reason why individuals who have high blood pressure often suffer from tinnitus, the pulsing they’re hearing is actually their own blood pumping. (That’s why this kind of tinnitus is called pulsatile tinnitus; you’re hearing your pulse.) The leading theory behind why high blood pressure can quicken loss of hearing is that high blood pressure can also cause permanent injury to your ears. Each beat has more force 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 loss of hearing even if you believe you’re too young for the age-related stuff, it’s a good move to consult a hearing care professional.

4: Dementia

Hearing loss could put you at higher risk of dementia. 2013 research from Johns Hopkins University that followed nearly 2,000 people in their 70’s during the period of six years revealed that the risk of cognitive impairment increased by 24% with just minor loss of hearing (about 25 dB, or slightly louder than a whisper). It was also revealed, 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 link, though a less statistically substantial one.) Based on these findings, moderate loss of hearing puts you at 3 times the danger of somebody without hearing loss; one’s risk is raised by nearly 4 times with extreme loss of hearing.

It’s alarming information, but it’s significant to note that while the connection between hearing loss and cognitive decline has been well recognized, scientists have been less effective at sussing out why the two are so strongly linked. 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. Another hypothesis is that loss of hearing short circuits your brain. In essence, because your brain is putting so much energy into understanding the sounds near you, you may not have much juice left for recalling things such as where you put your medication. Preserving social ties 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 are easier to deal with, and you’ll be capable of focusing on the necessary stuff instead of attempting 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 getting a hearing exam.