Hearing loss is usually associated with getting older, but research now indicates that diabetes could also be responsible for the higher volume on your television.
Studies have shown those with diabetes face almost twice the risk of experiencing a hearing loss than adults in the general population.
Medical experts aren’t exactly sure why this is the case, but they believe that having diabetes may affect the blood vessels in the ears, in turn having an effect on hearing.
“There hasn’t been a lot of research into the relationship between hearing loss and diabetes,” explains DL endocrinologist Dr Sultan Linjawi.
“We suspect, however, that hearing is affected by damage to small blood vessels. The capillaries in the ear are very small, and blood with a high level of glucose is thick and harder to circulate.”
Even though research now links hearing loss with having diabetes, it’s not a well-recognised complication just yet.
“Often people don’t make the connection between hearing loss and diabetes,” says Sue Leahy, Diabetes NSW educator. “It’s only been over the last few years that we have started to make the link, but we do need to recognise it may be one of the complications, and is not just related to age.”
A 2008 US study by the National Institutes of Health tested more 4,700 adults on their ability to hear a range of frequencies.
The results showed that those with diabetes were almost twice as likely to have a hearing loss, particularly in the high frequencies.
A separate analysis of these findings in Diabetes Care showed that 65 per cent of people with diabetes had a high frequency hearing loss, and that 26 per cent also had an accompanying low/mid frequency hearing impairment.
Being aware of hearing loss as a potential complication of diabetes is important, because earlier detection means better outcomes.
Simon McMillan, audiologist and managing director of Starkey Australia hearing aid manufacturers, says with hearing loss, reduced stimulation to your ears and brain can impair the brain’s ability to process sound and recognise speech over time.
“The more speech recognition deteriorates, the more difficult it is to recover,” he says. “When you can’t hear what’s going on around you, your mental sharpness suffers. The sooner you act, the sooner you put a stop to the negative effects of hearing loss.”
But as it’s gradual many people don’t notice the changes, until it’s significant, or until someone else tells them they have a problem. Even then, many are unwilling to acknowledge they have a problem, so it can become a delicate subject.
If you have a partner or relative who you suspect has a hearing loss, talk to them about your concerns. “Gently remind them of their hearing loss every time you ‘translate’ or repeat something for them,” McMillan says.
“You can encourage them to visit a hearing professional to do more research and get their questions answered. “You can also offer to schedule and attend a hearing consultation with them. “
And if you have diabetes, to safeguard yourself against diabetes-related hearing loss, Dr Linjawi recommends keeping your blood glucose levels at an HbA1c of less than seven per cent and to treat ear infections promptly to prevent them from turning into anything serious.
In addition, ask your GP about having a regular hearing test, usually carried out by audiologists. And don’t be afraid to ask for a referral to a hearing specialist if you’d like a second opinion.
Regular hearing checks will help discover any emerging problems, which can be addressed by hearing aids or other measures.
Leahy says the advice she gives to minimise hearing issues is similar to the suggestions she makes for preventing other diabetes complications -- follow a healthy low GI diet, exercise regularly and maintain BGLs within or as close to target range as possible are the main areas to address.
“It’s really important to raise awareness about this, as untreated hearing loss can lead to social isolation and more serious conditions such as depression,” she says.
“In the same way as you have your feet checked once a year, maybe you have your hearing checked annually too. Really it should be part of the cycle of care checks.”
How to help
When a person loses hearing, they can also go through a grieving process, as the impairment can affect their relationships, workplace and health.
If your partner is grappling with hearing issues, Sue Leahy suggests:
* Have your hearing tested too, as a sign of support
* Help your partner in group situations where background noise might be present. Let family and friends know how they can improve communication
* Support your partner by listening to how they feel about the hearing loss
* Practice good communication skills by focusing on what you are saying to the person with hearing loss