As odd as it may seem, hearing loss might be one of the first clues that your heart isn’t healthy. The association between cardiovascular health and the auditory system was first demonstrated 80 years ago. There has since been a large amount of research dedicated to showing the effect of heart disease on hearing loss and compounding existing hearing loss.
This research doesn’t just point to older adults, but also to younger adults with early-onset atherosclerosis. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., responsible for nearly 1 in every 4 deaths. About 610,000 people die of heart disease every year in the U.S.
With two very different systems in the body, how do we get from heart disease to hearing loss?
Heart Disease and Hearing Loss
The vascular system. Heart disease is a catchall name for many cardiovascular conditions (diseases of the blood vessel system and heart). Heart disease involves multiple problems, many of which are related to atherosclerosis – when plaque builds up in the artery walls, narrowing them and restricting blood flow.
The auditory system. The inner ear contains fluid and thousands of tiny hair cells. We hear sound when these hair cells move, transforming the vibrations into electrical signals your brain interprets as sound. When these hair cells or the hearing nerve itself are damaged, hearing loss occurs. This type of hearing loss is called sensorineural hearing loss.
Just like all the cells in our body, these inner ear hair cells depend on oxygen to keep them alive and healthy. They are fed oxygen by blood flow. When the heart is damaged or not working properly, it may be unable to supply enough blood to the whole body, including the hair cells of the inner ear. When this happens, the hair cells become damaged and start to die, resulting in hearing loss. This type of hearing loss is permanent because there is no way to repair the damaged hairs.
Because one of the first signs of heart disease is blood vessel trauma to the inner ear and hearing loss, a hearing test and evaluation are integral to your health and wellbeing. Be sure your hearing instrument specialist includes your cardiovascular health history as part of your first visit. Taking your blood pressure, if available, is also a smart suggestion.
Besides heart disease, there are other serious diseases that potentially relate to hearing loss, such as diabetes, thrombosis, pulsatile tinnitus (pulsing sounds), sudden onset of sensorineural hearing loss, and hypertensive retinopathy.
Tinnitus, dizziness or a sudden increase in hearing loss are symptoms that are especially indicative of a need for more heart health investigation. Call your primary care provider as well if these symptoms occur. Immediate medical attention is always needed for sudden sensorineural hearing loss.
Risk Factors for Heart Disease
The most important risk factors for heart disease are:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol, particularly LDL
- Being overweight or obese
- Diabetes and prediabetes
- Physically inactive/sedentary lifestyle
- Unhealthy diet
- Chronic stress
- Family history of early heart disease
- History of preeclampsia during pregnancy
- Age (55 or older for women)
Some risk factors, such as age and family history of early heart disease, can’t be changed, but the rest are controllable either through lifestyle changes or medication, if needed.
Protecting your heart and hearing
Consult your primary health care provider about how to help lessen your risk of developing heart disease. As hearing loss can occur gradually, scheduling an annual hearing screening is the best way to monitor your hearing health.
Hearing loss is associated with:
- Social impairment
- Overall decrease in quality of life
…and more. When you take care of your heart, you’re taking care of so much more – you’re giving yourself a better, happier, healthier life.