The Strong Link Between Diabetes and Hearing Loss — Facts You Need to Know

If you have diabetes, this may be news you don’t necessarily want to hear, yet you probably already know it or at least suspect it to be true. The folks at Starkey Hearing Technology, who work closely every single day with Dr. Gyl Kasewurm and her team at Dr. Kasewurm’s Professional Hearing Services in St. Joseph, confirms for us an issue that has long been debated. The relationship between hearing loss and diabetes.

Research now concludes that hearing loss is more prevalent in adults with diabetes.

Starkey says that one research study included data from participants ranging in age from 20 to 69. Here is some of the important information they found:

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  • People with diabetes were twice as likely to have hearing loss than people without…
  • People who are pre-diabetic are 30-percent more likely to have hearing loss…

Other studies have also supported those results. Let’s look at some of the possible reasons diabetes and hearing loss are linked, what diabetics can do to protect their hearing, and how they can get help now.

How is diabetes a risk factor for hearing loss?

The short answer is we don’t know precisely. Some researchers believe that diabetes damages the hearing nerves. Think of it as neuropathy of the hearing nerve. High blood sugars can damage nerves throughout your body. This is known as diabetic neuropathy. Diabetic neuropathy most often occurs in your feet and legs.

Depending on the affected nerves, symptoms of diabetic neuropathy can range from pain and numbness in your legs and feet to problems with other areas of your body, including your digestive system and heart. Symptoms vary from person to person and may be mild or may be debilitating. Researchers think this same damage may be happening to the hearing nerve.

Another theory is that high blood sugars may damage the very small blood vessels that support and feed the inner ear. This is similar to how high blood sugars can affect vision and kidney function. The blood vessel system that feeds the ear is very similar to the systems that support the eyes and kidneys. As this system is damaged, hearing is compromised.

The common denominator in both theories? High blood sugars!

Can diabetics do anything to protect against hearing loss?

What we do know is that the better people can control their blood sugar, the less likely it will be that high blood sugar can affect their hearing. Following medication and diet treatment plans are critical to  hearing protection for people with diabetes.

There is another important variable here. As a person’s hearing decreases, the likelihood of social isolation and depression increases. Diabetics who are isolated and depressed may struggle more with their treatment plans and managing their blood sugars. This can become a bit of spiral with the various factors aggravating each other. It is important to keep an eye out for symptoms of hearing loss, depression and social isolation.

Dr. Kasewurm suggests you take control of your hearing now.

Whether or not you think you have hearing loss, it’s advised that if you have diabetes, you should get a baseline measurement of your hearing as soon as possible. Going forward, yearly hearing tests are recommended. Like your vision, your hearing can be stable for a long time and then shift over a short period of time. Regular monitoring of your hearing can make sure your medical team is able to provide treatment as soon as possible if and once your hearing starts to change.

If you have symptoms of hearing loss, it is even more important for you to get your hearing checked. The sooner you get the hearing loss treated, the less impact it can have on your mood and outlook.

According to the American Diabetes Association, diabetes and hearing loss are two of America’s most widespread health concerns. They tell us that nearly 30 million people in the U.S. have diabetes, and an estimated 34.5 million have some type of hearing loss. Those are large groups of people, and it appears there is a lot of overlap between the two.

Since it can happen slowly, the symptoms of hearing loss can often be hard to notice. In fact, family members and friends sometimes notice the hearing loss before the person experiencing it.

Here are key signs of hearing loss:

  • Frequently asking others to repeat themselves…
  • Trouble following conversations that involve more than two people…
  • Thinking that others are mumbling…
  • Problems hearing in noisy places such as busy restaurants…
  • Trouble hearing the voices of women and small children…
  • Turning up the TV or radio volume too loud for others who are nearby…

Even the National Institutes of Health are sharing concerns over the apparent link between diabetes and hearing loss. Catherine Cowie, Ph.D. at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases is a Senior Author in studies where she finds, “Hearing loss may be an under-recognized complication of diabetes. As diabetes becomes more common, the disease may become a more significant contributor to hearing loss.” She suggests that people with diabetes should consider having their hearing tested, contending, “Our study found a strong and consistent link between hearing impairment and diabetes using a number of different outcomes.”

The NIH says that researchers discovered the higher rate of hearing loss in those with diabetes after analyzing the results of hearing tests given to a nationally representative sample of adults in the United States. The test measured participants’ ability to hear low, middle, and high frequency sounds in both ears. The link between diabetes and hearing loss was evident across all frequencies, with a stronger association in the high frequency range. Mild or greater hearing impairment of low- or mid-frequency sounds in the worse ear was about 21-percent in 399 adults with diabetes compared to about 9-percent in 4,741 adults without diabetes. For high frequency sounds, mild or greater hearing impairment in the worse ear was 54-percent in those with diabetes compared to 32-percent in those who did not have the disease.

The study, published early online June 17, 2008, in the Annals of Internal Medicine, was conducted by researchers from the NIDDK, the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), components of the NIH, and Social & Scientific Systems, Inc., which provides support on public health topics to NIH and other government agencies.

The researchers analyzed data from hearing tests administered from 1999 to 2004 to participants in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Half of the 11,405 survey participants aged 20 to 69 were randomly assigned to have their hearing tested, and nearly 90-percent of them completed the hearing exam and the diabetes questionnaire. The hearing test, called pure tone audiometry, measures hearing sensitivity across a range of sound frequencies.

Dr. Cowie says, “Using the data from the hearing tests, we measured hearing impairment in eight different ways. Also, participants responded to questions about hearing loss in the questionnaire, which asked whether they had a little trouble hearing, a lot of trouble hearing, or were deaf without a hearing aid.” In addition, 2,259 of the participants who received hearing tests were randomly assigned to have their blood glucose tested after an overnight fast.

Earlier U.S. studies that examined diabetes and hearing loss found a weaker association or no association, but these studies were based on smaller samples of older adults, and they were not nationally representative, according to co-author Howard Hoffman, an epidemiologist at NIDCD. He says, “This is the first study of a nationally representative sample of working age adults, 20 to 69 years old, and we found an association between diabetes and hearing impairment evident as early as ages 30 to 40.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Kathleen Bainbridge of Social & Scientific Systems, Inc. concludes, “The link between diabetes and hearing loss has been debated since the 1960s or before, and our results show that a relationship exists even when we account for the major factors known to affect hearing, such as age, race, ethnicity, income level, noise exposure, and the use of certain medications.”

The bottom line on all of the research and data indicates what Dr. Kasewurm and her team at Dr. Kasewurm’s Professional Hearing Services have argued all along, “If you think you might have a hearing loss, have your hearing checked. The process is painless, takes less than an hour, and can be arranged with a simple appointment process by calling 982-3444.”

Don’t risk further damage by waiting until it’s too late to get viable help, especially if you are diabetic.

Dr. Kasewurm’s Professional Hearing Services can be found at 511 Renaissance Drive in the Edgewater neighborhood of St. Joseph and online by clicking the link below: