Are Diabetes and Hearing Loss Related? The Link and Prevention

Posted March 29, 2021 by Clint Kelly - See Editorial Guidelines

Diabetes is a chronic condition that can cause many health complications if it is not well managed. One of these complications could be hearing loss. But how are diabetes and hearing loss related?

This article will discuss the factors that connect diabetes and hearing loss, along with symptoms, risk factors, and prevention methods. First, let’s get started with a brief summary to help get us started.

Diabetes and Hearing Loss: Research suggests that there are higher rates of hearing loss among those that have diabetes compared to those that do not. The connection may have to deal with how diabetes can damage blood vessels and nerves throughout the body. The symptoms of hearing loss can often go unnoticed due to the gradual progression.

With this quick answer in mind let’s get into more of the specifics. 

Diabetes and hearing loss

Diabetes and hearing loss are two prevalent conditions, and though hearing loss is common with age, research has suggested that there is significant overlap among these two conditions.

The exact connection has not yet been determined, and research is still needed. However, there are some potential explanations, but before we get into that we have to understand how exactly the ear works.

Are Diabetes and Hearing Loss Related

How the ear works

Understanding how the ear works will help us identify the relationship between diabetes and hearing loss. Below is a breakdown of how the ear functions.

A portion of the ear, called the cochlea, is filled with fluid. This fluid moves in response to vibrations due to sound.

When the fluid moves, it, in turn, causes tiny hair cells, called stereocilia, in the cochlea to move. These hair cells translate the movement into electrical impulses.

The brain will then interpret these impulses, or signals, allowing us to hear.

Causes

Diabetes is a chronic condition that can impact your blood vessels and nerves’ function due to high blood sugar levels.

Chronically high blood sugar levels can decrease the elasticity of your blood vessels. This causes them to narrow over time, making it harder for blood to flow freely and easily.

Blood vessels are vital, as they supply our nerves and organs with oxygenated blood. If the blood vessels become damaged, then crucial parts of our body may not be getting the nutrients they need to be sustained and keep functioning.

Like other parts of the body, the tiny hair cells in the inner ear rely on blood circulation to stay healthy. If these hair cells are damaged or die due to a lack of blood supply, they are permanently damaged.

This, in turn, permanently affects hearing. With this explanation, it starts to become clear how diabetes and hearing loss are more connected than what we may have originally thought.

How common is hearing loss in those with diabetes?

Individuals with type 2 diabetes are believed to be twice as likely to develop hearing loss or hearing impairment compared to those without diabetes. Even those with prediabetes were shown to have a 30 percent higher rate of hearing loss.

Despite the significant overlap between diabetes and hearing loss, it does not mean everyone with diabetes will suffer from hearing loss also. You can limit your risk by maintaining good control over your blood sugar levels.

Symptoms of hearing loss

There are four different types of hearing loss, and the symptoms you experience may vary depending on the type you are suffering from. Below is a breakdown of each type.

  • Sensorineural hearing loss
    • Abbreviated as SNHL, it is the most common type of hearing loss. It often occurs after damage has been done to the inner ear.
  • Conductive hearing loss
    • This is caused by something that stops sounds from getting through the outer or middle ear.
  • Mixed hearing loss
    • This is a combination of conductive and sensorineural hearing loss.
  • Auditory Neuropathy Spectrum Disorder
    • Sound isn’t organized in a way that the brain can understand due to damage to the inner ear.

Common symptoms of hearing loss may include:

  • Trouble hearing sounds around background noise
  • Particular difficulty understanding children’s and female voices
  • Dizziness or balance problems
  • Trouble hearing high-pitched sounds
  • Sounds and voices seem muffled
  • Feeling like you can hear voices but can’t understand them
  • Tinnitus (ringing in your ears)
  • Trouble hearing consonants
  • Frequently asking others to speak more slowly, clearly, or loudly
  • Needing to turn up the volume of the television or other system
  • Withdrawal from conversations
  • Avoidance of social settings

Diagnosing hearing loss

Those with diabetes may want to have regular check-ups to test the function of their hearing.

Hearing loss can be diagnosed in a few different ways through tests that may include:

  • Physical exam
    • Your doctor may physically exam your ear, looking for blockage such as earwax or inflammation that can cause hearing loss.
  • General screening test
    • This may also be known as a whisper test. Your doctor will ask you to cover one ear at a time and determine how well you respond to different volumes and frequencies of words spoken.
  • App-based tests
    • There are unofficial self-administered tests that you can download as an app on your phone or tablet to help you determine if your hearing has declined.
  • Tuning fork test
    • This involves using two instruments that produce sound when struck together. Your doctor may use these instruments to determine how well you can hear and which part of your ear might be affected.
  • Audiometer test
    • This test involves wearing headphones as sounds play in each ear at different volumes. You signal when and in which ear you hear the sound.

Dealing with diabetes and hearing loss is difficult, but making an effort to catch complications early can make it easier. Consider having one of these tests done regularly.

Other risk factors for hearing loss

Here is a list of other risk factors that can lead or contribute to hearing loss:

  • Aging – The structure of the inner ear can deteriorate over time.
  • Loud noises – Being exposed to loud noises can cause damage to the cells of the inner ear. Either long-term exposure to loud noises or short blasts can cause damage. Your occupation or recreational activities may expose you to these noises.
  • Genes – Your genetic makeup and family history may make you more sensitive to ear damage.
  • Certain medications – Certain drugs such as some chemotherapy medicines or Viagra may cause damage to your inner ear. Other drugs taken at higher doses, such as Aspirin or pain killers, can cause tinnitus (ringing in the ears).
  • Certain illnesses – other than diabetes, illnesses and diseases that cause high fever may cause damage to the cochlea, leading to hearing loss.

If you have diabetes or one of these other risk factors, consider talking to your doctor about steps you can take to prevent hearing loss.

Preventing diabetes-related hearing loss

diabetes and hearing loss

When it comes to diabetes and hearing loss, we can see how controlling blood sugar and reducing fluctuations in glucose levels will aid in preventing ear damage. Thus, the lower and more stable your A1c is, the more likely you will preserve your ability to hear well.

So, one of the best ways to prevent diabetes-related hearing loss is to control your blood sugar levels. This can be difficult to do regardless of the type of diabetes you have.

However, with the right treatment regimen, it is achievable. Talk to your doctor to ensure the prescribed medications are still right for you.

If you are using insulin, ensure you are dosing your insulin accurately and administering it at the right time.

Another step one can take is to quit habits that can contribute to both hearing loss and worsened blood sugar control. For example, smoking can speed up hearing loss and also worsen insulin resistance. So, quit bad habits so you can improve your diabetes condition and prevent further inner ear damage.

Lastly, avoid exposure to loud noises. This may be impossible as many occupations require you to be around machinery and in an environment filled with loud noises. However, wearing proper ear protection can certainly help.

Final thoughts

Many do not consider hearing loss to be a diabetes-related complication but based on what we covered; it looks like it certainly can be. For more information regarding diabetes and hearing loss, talk to your healthcare provider.

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