In the past few decades, researchers have noticed that people with impaired hearing have a higher risk of other, seemingly unrelated physical and mental health conditions, such as Alzheimer's disease, depression, and an increased risk of balance issues and falls in seniors, among others. These conditions, also known in the medical sphere as comorbidities, have been the reason why people with hearing problems have a higher mortality rate. Below we discuss 6 such conditions related to hearing loss, for you to know and remember.
1. Higher Risks of Falls
As you may be aware, our vestibular system, a sensory organ located in our ears, is responsible for sending information about spatial orientation to the brain, and so it plays a key role in our sense of balance, especially during movement. There is evidence to suggest that hearing loss also often comes with damage to the vestibular system, which could lead to balance issues and an increased likelihood of falls.
As we age, our hearing often worsens, as do our other senses, but our bones and muscles also become much weaker, and so a fall can lead to serious injuries. As a matter of fact, falls are the leading cause of injuries among the elderly and the main reason for trauma-related emergency room visits in the senior population. A study was conducted in 2,017 people aged 40-69 between 2001-2004 to examine the relation of falls and hearing loss, and the researchers found that every 10dB hearing loss increased the odds of a fall 1.4-fold.
Though more research needs to be conducted to examine this association, given the seriousness of the issue, we believe it is crucial to be informed and wary of the possibility of hearing loss contributing to falls in seniors, as it stresses the importance of hearing aids and regular hearing exams in the elderly.
2. Dementia and Alzheimer's Disease
One of the most well-researched correlations is between hearing loss and the risks of dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Since the early 2000s, there have been a number of studies in the elderly population entertaining the possibility that hearing loss can increase one's risk of cognitive decline and dementia. These studies have shown that significant hearing loss can increase one's likelihood of suffering from dementia and Alzheimer's disease after the age of 65.
The largest-ever study on the topic was conducted in Germany, and it sheds some light on the reason why hearing loss contributes to cognitive decline. The study looked at 154,783 participants aged 65 and up, and it followed their progress over the course of 5 years, controlling for other known comorbidities of dementia. The results have revealed that only those with bilateral hearing loss had a higher incidence of dementia, leading scientists to suggest that it's likely the lack of communication with others, rather than the hearing loss itself, that increases the risk of dementia.
As Donal Schum, the vice president of audiology at Oticon mentioned in an interview with Considerable, "We are in no way saying that getting hearing aids prevents dementia or Alzheimer’s — we’re not anywhere near that — but we do recognize how important social interaction is in the later years, and it’s tricky to create those environments for yourself if you allow yourself to become more isolated because of hearing loss.” This brings us right to the next point on our list, social isolation.
3. Social Isolation
We've all had a scoop of social isolation in 2020, and we can all say with crystal clear certainty that it's not too pleasant. Imagine feeling like that all the time... and with hearing loss, that is often the reality. Since hearing loss is mostly gradual, family and friends may not notice that their loved one is becoming more estranged because of their hearing loss and attribute their behavior to something else.
This is a common occurrence, and one that shouldn't be taken lightly, as poor hearing can absolutely make communication more difficult, and a lack of social communication can easily lead to problems with emotional well-being and mental health.
Let's clarify from the get-go, hearing loss isn't causing diabetes, it's actually the other way around, but hearing loss can be a useful indicator for the diagnosis of the condition nevertheless. This is because millions of people worldwide, and 8.1 million people in the US alone have undiagnosed diabetes, so taking into account any new symptom or indication of the disease is crucial for better and more widespread diagnoses.
But how does diabetes affect hearing? Studies suggest that the condition can reduce the blood flow to the cochlea, thus causing hearing loss. Moreover, high blood glucose levels can damage the fine blood vessels and nerves in the ears, which can also contribute to hearing loss.
5. Cardiovascular Issues
Hearing loss could also sometimes indicate that you have cardiovascular issues. This was first observed in a 2009 study that reported low-frequency hearing loss raises the risk of cardiovascular events, so much so that such patients should be considered at risk of such diseases and even stroke.
Although scientists know very little about this specific correlation as of now, they suggest that the reason why patients with cardiovascular issues may experience hearing loss is due to a pathology of the vessels in the cerebrovascular system. Interestingly, this is mostly characteristic of those who can't hear low-frequency sounds, as opposed to generalized hearing loss.
The social isolation and the realization of one's physical limitations common for hearing loss can be quite depressing. As a matter of fact, research shows that depression is common in patients experiencing hearing loss specifically because difficulties with having a conversation can isolate you from other people.
Research supports this observation, and it further specifies that loneliness and depression can also increase the risk of cognitive decline and dementia in particular. One study, for example, found that those who feel lonely and depressed had a higher incidence of cortical amyloid plaques - the signature symptom of Alzheimer's disease. Furthermore, depression has a number of other adverse effects, such as chronic body aches, headaches, epilepsy, and even multiple sclerosis.
If you're experiencing any symptoms of depression due to hearing loss, make sure to seek treatment, as these days, hearing problems are highly treatable.
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