Our bodies require clean fuel and nutrients to run properly. Research over the past several decades has shown that hearing health is closely related to many bodily processes, including memory, heart function, blood health, and even stress and anxiety. Whether those processes cause or simply indicate a hearing impairment is still up for debate, but the correlations are there. Knowing your body’s relationship with hearing can help you stay mindful of your overall well-being and help create a path for healthier living.
Many of the same unhealthy patterns of behavior that affect the heart — poor nutrition, lack of exercise, and smoking, to name a few — are related to loss of hearing, and it’s no surprise why: Hardening or narrowing of the arteries due to heart disease restricts blood flow to the cochlea, the organ in the inner ear most responsible for hearing ability.
Effects: These restrictions can starve the cochlea of oxygen, which is necessary for healthy cells. Hearing loss may also be a predictor of heart disease, as the inner ear is so sensitive to blood flow that possible abnormalities in the cardiovascular system are more easily recognized here than in other less sensitive parts of the body.
The strong correlation between dementia and hearing loss has been well documented, but perhaps less well known is that older individuals with hearing loss experience a greater rate of brain shrinkage.
Effects: Although the brain naturally shrinks with age, the rate of atrophy increases by an additional cubic centimeter per year in those with at least a mild (25 dB) hearing loss — and the shrinkage occurs in regions associated with processing sound, speech, memory, and balance.
Prevention: Johns Hopkins researchers ran a January 2014 study that determined the atrophy may occur because of a lack of stimulation of the auditory nerve, which makes it all the more important to consistently wear, clean, maintain, and update your hearing technology.
Similar to individuals with heart disease, diabetics typically have impaired blood flow, which can cause damage to the delicate inner ear.
Effects: When diabetes is untreated, narrow blood vessels or abnormal blood flow can prevent the cochlea from receiving blood and can harm the body’s ability to flush toxins from the inner ear.
Prevention: A 2008 study performed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and published in the Annals of Internal Medicine reported that diabetics are more than twice as likely to be affected by hearing loss — so be sure to keep up with treatments!
Sickle-cell anemia is known to cause fatigue and pain in sufferers because the red blood cells are misshapen. These misshapen cells restrict blood flow, which makes delivering oxygen to the cochlea more difficult.
Effects: Much like diabetes and heart disease, the effects of sickle-cell anemia on hearing are slow to develop and disrupt hearing more over time.
Prevention: Treatments can prevent blood cells from sickling, helping the anemia and lowering the risk of organ damage through improved blood flow.
Stress and Anxiety
It may seem illogical, but there’s growing support for the idea that stress may be a factor in hearing loss and tinnitus development.
Effects: According to one study from the NIH, life events and daily hassles create stress, which leads to vasoconstriction and decreases the flow of blood and oxygen to all areas of the body, including the inner ear. Unfortunately, two of the most common stress relievers also restrict blood flow through vasoconstriction: cigarettes and alcohol.
Prevention: If stress or anxiety have caught up to you, exercise, yoga, and meditation are all proven healthy alternatives for stress relief. Better yet, exercise works to improve blood flow and heart health.
Call us today to talk with a hearing care professional!