Can Hearing Loss Lead to Other Medical Problems?

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

Aging is one of the most common indicators of hearing loss and let’s be honest, try as we may, aging can’t be avoided. But did you realize that hearing loss has also been linked to between loss issues that are treatable, and in certain circumstances, can be avoided? You might be surprised by these examples.

1: Diabetes

A widely-quoted 2008 study that looked at over 5,000 American adults revealed that individuals who were diagnosed with diabetes were two times as likely to suffer from some level of hearing loss when mid or low frequency sounds were applied to test them. Impairment was also more likely with high-frequency sounds, but not as severe. It was also discovered by analysts that people who struggled with high blood sugar levels but not high enough to be diagnosed with diabetes, put simply, pre-diabetic, were more likely by 30 percent to have loss of hearing than people who had normal blood sugar. A more recent 2013 meta-study (yup, a study of studies) discovered that the relationship between diabetes and hearing loss was persistent, even while controlling for other variables.

So the link between hearing loss and diabetes is quite well demonstrated. But why would you be at greater risk of getting diabetes just because you have hearing loss? The answer isn’t really well comprehended. Diabetes is linked to a number of health issues, and particularly, the kidneys, extremities, and eyes can be physically injured. One hypothesis is that the condition may affect the ears in a similar manner, damaging blood vessels in the inner ear. But overall health management could be the culprit. A 2015 study underscored the link between loss of hearing and diabetes in U.S veterans, but particularly, it revealed that people with unchecked diabetes, in essence, people suffered even worse if they had untreated and uncontrolled. It’s necessary to have your blood sugar tested and consult with a doctor if you believe you might have undiagnosed diabetes or may be pre-diabetic. By the same token, if you’re having problems hearing, it’s a smart idea to get it checked out.

2: Falling

You could have a bad fall. It’s not exactly a health problem, because it isn’t vertigo but it can lead to many other difficulties. And while you might not think that your hearing could impact your likelihood of tripping or slipping, research from 2012 found a considerable connection between hearing loss and risk of a fall. Looking at a trial of over 2,000 adults ages 40 to 69, investigators found that for every 10 dB increase in hearing loss (as an example, normal breathing is about 10 dB), the chance of falling increased 1.4X. This link held up even for people with mild hearing loss: Within the last 12 months people with 25 dB of hearing loss were more likely to have had a fall than people with normal hearing.

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

3: High Blood Pressure

A number of studies (including this one from 2018) have shown that loss of hearing is associated with high blood pressure and some (including this 2013 study) have shown that high blood pressure might actually quicken age-related hearing loss. It’s a connection that’s been found fairly persistently, even when controlling for variables including whether or not you smoke or noise exposure. The only variable that is important appears to be gender: If you’re a guy, the connection between hearing loss and high blood pressure is even stronger.

Your ears are quite closely connected to your circulatory system: Two main arteries are very near to the ears not to mention the tiny blood vessels inside them. This is one reason why individuals who have high blood pressure often suffer from tinnitus, it’s actually their own blood pumping that they are hearing. (That’s why this kind of tinnitus is called pulsatile tinnitus; you’re hearing your own pulse.) The main theory for why high blood pressure can speed up hearing loss is that high blood pressure can also cause permanent injury to your ears. If your heart is pumping harder, there’s more pressure every time it beats. The smaller blood vessels in your ears might possibly be injured by this. High blood pressure is manageable, through both lifestyle changes and medical interventions. But if you suspect you’re dealing with loss of hearing even if you think you’re too young for the age-related stuff, it’s a good decision to schedule an appointment with a hearing expert.

4: Dementia

Hearing loss may put you at higher risk of dementia. A six year study, started in 2013 that analyzed 2,000 people in their 70’s revealed that the chance of mental impairment increased by 24% with just mild loss of hearing (about 25 dB, or slightly louder than a whisper). 2011 research by the same researchers which followed people over more than a decade discovered that the worse a subject’s hearing was, the more probably it was that they would develop dementia. (Alzheimer’s was also discovered to have a similar link, though a less statistically substantial one.) Based on these conclusions, moderate loss of hearing puts you at three times the danger of somebody with no hearing loss; one’s danger is nearly quintupled with extreme loss of hearing.

However, even though scientists have been successful at documenting the link between cognitive decline and loss of hearing, they still don’t know why this happens. If you can’t hear very well, it’s difficult to interact with people so in theory you will avoid social interactions, and that social isolation and lack of mental stimulation can be debilitating. Another hypothesis is that hearing loss short circuits your brain. In other words, because your brain is putting so much of its recourses into understanding the sounds around you, you may not have much juice left for recalling things such as where you put your keys. Preserving social ties and keeping the brain active and challenged could help here, but so can treating loss of hearing. Social circumstances become much more overwhelming when you are struggling to hear what people are saying. So if you are dealing with loss of hearing, you should put a plan of action in place including getting a hearing exam.

The site information is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. To receive personalized advice or treatment, schedule an appointment.