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Diabetes and Hearing Loss: Dr. Yung Takes a Deeper Look!

I am happy to return to Audiology and be back in the Torrington clinic with Torry after my maternity leave the past few months. Believe it or not, my labor started on December 8, 2022, while I was at my computer ordering hearing aids for a patient! A few hours later we welcomed Henry Ryan Yung, or “Hank”, to our family.

He was perfectly healthy, measuring 20.5 inches long and weighing in at a whopping 10 lbs 2 oz. Due to his size, hospital protocol dictated he have multiple blood sugar tests to ensure he was stable and prepared to go home. This got me thinking about blood sugar and the effect it has on our body from our first moments outside the womb to the entirety of our lives in this world.

A few months later on my first week back to work I had a patient visit for his annual hearing test. He noted that over the past few years he has been dealing with pre-Diabetes that evolved into Type II Diabetes. He reported a series of medications and changes to his diet had been necessary to find a solution to treat the disorder. During this time he had noticed changes to his hearing and the ringing in his ears. Reviewing his hearing test we found his high frequency hearing loss had worsened significantly. I spent some time counseling him on “why” behind the connection between Diabetes and hearing loss. It reminded me of my initial thoughts on blood sugar that had been pushed to a dark corner of my brain by hours of late feeding and thousands of diaper changes.

If I am curious about this topic, I am sure my patients are too! Let’s dive in.

Important Facts

The American Diabetes Association explains, “Diabetes and hearing loss are two of America’s most widespread health concerns.” Multiple studies have confirmed people with diabetes are more than TWICE as likely to have mild to moderate high frequency hearing loss than those individuals without the disease, regardless of age. The CDC recommends people get their hearing tested by an audiologist every year if they have diabetes.

How is Diabetes connected to hearing loss/balance problems?

The CDC states that high blood glucose levels from untreated diabetes can weaken the ear’s blood vessels as well as the nerve cells in the inner ear, or cochlea. Like the rest of your body, hair cells rely on proper circulation and once they are damaged they do not regrow.

You will often hear us refer to nerve cells as “hair cells” in the clinic. These hair cells are very important as they help turn sound waves into electrical signals that are sent up your auditory nerve to your brain for decoding. As important as they are, they are extremely fragile. Most people know that loud sound, head injuries, and certain medications can cause hair cell damage in the human ear, but they are unaware of the dangerous effects of high blood glucose.

If you have diabetes and experience itchy ears and frequent infections in your ear canal, you are not alone. There are two reasons for this; Diabetes makes earwax less acidic and reduces the healthy barrier in your ear, and a diabetic’s skin is more likely to let in infection.

Many patients with hearing loss experience ringing in the ears, known as tinnitus. Although it has not been studied in depth, tinnitus has been proven to be more common in people diagnosed with diabetes. Diabetes medications often contribute to this problem as well, since many of the drugs that treat the disorder have tinnitus listed as a side effect.

Interestingly, the CDC also notes that, “Diabetes damages the small blood vessels in your inner ear and your vestibular system, which is the part of your inner ear that helps with balance.” Dizziness and an increase in the risk for falling is often the result.

What can you do?

On their Healthy Ears page, the CDC recommends staying on top of your "ABCs" for good diabetes care:

"A1C (a measure of your average blood sugar over 3 months): The goal set for many people is less than 7% for this blood test, but your doctor might set a different goal for you.

Blood pressure: High blood pressure causes heart disease. The goal is less than 140/90 mmHg for most people but check with your doctor to see what your goal should be.

Cholesterol: LDL or “bad” cholesterol builds up and clogs your blood vessels. HDL or “good” cholesterol helps remove the “bad” cholesterol from your blood vessels. Ask your doctor what your cholesterol numbers should be.

Smoking: If you smoke or use other tobacco products (including e-cigarettes), take steps to quit. Call 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669) for support." Smoking is a well-known cause of hearing problems.

What can WE do?

Finally, it is recommended that patients who have been diagnosed with Diabetes are frequently tested for hearing loss. A comprehensive audiological exam, or diagnostic hearing evaluation, will help set a baseline and track the progression of hearing loss over time. Most sources agree that once a year is an appropriate time frame.

Early identification and intervention is crucial with hearing loss. As soon as damage to the ear is detected, it is crucial to treat it! As with Diabetes, there are ways to improve life with permanent nerve damage (prescription hearing aids, communication strategies, assistive listening devices, etc), but no cure or reversal of the damage. Our Audiologists are highly qualified to develop individual treatment plans that cater to each patient and their specific health issues. Contact us anytime to learn more!


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