Amy Campbell is a registered dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator who has been working in the field of diabetes for many years. She is the author of several books about diabetes, including 16 Myths of a Diabetic Diet and Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition and Meal Planning. In addition, Amy is a lecturer and frequent contributor to several diabetes-related websites.

Hearing is one of the five senses we depend on, yet we often take hearing for granted. Being able to hear someone speak or to listen to music are integral parts of our lives. Yet, according to the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD):

  • About 15 percent of American adults (37.5 million) aged 18 and older have trouble hearing.
  • One in eight people in the United States, or 30 million people, aged 12 years and older has hearing loss in both ears.
  • Men are more likely than women to have hearing loss.

Hearing loss can occur due to a number of factors. For example, many people lose their hearing as they get older. Other people, such as construction workers, farmers, airport workers, and people in the military may lose hearing due to repeated exposure to loud noise. Infection, heart conditions, head injuries, brain tumors, and some medicines can also cause hearing loss.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who have diabetes are twice as likely to have hearing loss compared to people who don’t have diabetes. In addition, the 86 million Americans who have prediabetes have a 30 percent higher rate of hearing loss than people who have normal blood sugar levels.

How hearing works

The ability to hear starts, of course, with the ear; more specifically, the anatomy of the ear. There are three parts to the ear:

  • The outer ear (the pinna, ear canal, and ear drum)
  • The middle ear (the ossicles and ear drum)
  • The inner ear (the cochlea, auditory nerve, and the brain)

Sound waves enter the ear canal, causing the ear drum to vibrate. This vibration causes the ossicles, which are tiny bones, to move. One of these bones hits against the membrane of the cochlea and makes the fluid in the cochlea move; this movement of fluid triggers an electrical signal to the auditory nerve, and this signal travels up the brain stem to special auditory centers in the brain. The message is processed and voila—you can hear!

Diabetes and hearing loss

Researchers aren’t exactly sure why hearing loss is more likely to occur in people with diabetes. However, they suspect that high blood sugar levels cause damage to small blood vessels in the inner ear, much like small blood vessel damage in the eyes and kidneys can lead to damage in these organs. High blood sugar levels can also damage the nerves in the ear. In addition, people who have diabetes along with high blood pressure may experience even more hearing loss. This is because high blood pressure can cause further damage to the ear’s small blood vessels.

Hearing loss can make life more complicated: a hearing-impaired person often has to struggle to understand what is being said. And because it’s such an effort to hear and participate in conversation, many people who suffer from hearing loss withdraw from social situations and can become quite isolated.

Signs of hearing loss

There are different levels of hearing loss: mild, moderate, severe, and profound. A hearing aid is needed for severe or profound hearing loss. But how do you know if you have hearing loss in the first place? Here are some of the common signs:

  • Often having to ask people to repeat themselves
  • Trouble understanding a phone conversation
  • Trouble hearing above background noise
  • Thinking that people are mumbling
  • Trouble hearing women or small children talking
  • Having to turn up the volume on the television or radio so much that it’s too loud for others who are nearby
  • Ringing or hissing sounds in the ear (called tinnitus)

Treatment for hearing loss

If you think you might have some degree of hearing loss, be sure to talk with your doctor. He or she may refer you to a hearing specialist called an audiologist, or a doctor who specializes in hearing disorders. There are a wide range of hearing aids that are available; some are more sophisticated than others. There are also devices called assistive listening devices (ALDs) that can help you better understand speech when you’re at the movies or a play, for example.

An audiologist can determine what is best for you, based on your level of impairment. In addition, you may undergo training to help you improve your listening skills. It’s also recommended that you involve family members or others with whom you are in frequent contact in your rehabilitation so they can learn how to best communicate with you.

Preventing hearing loss

One of the best ways to protect your hearing is to aim for good glycemic control. This means taking any diabetes medicine as prescribed, following a healthy eating plan, being physically active, and staying on top of your diabetes “numbers,” such as your A1c, blood pressure, cholesterol, and microalbumin. Protect your ears from overly loud noise by using ear plugs or noise-cancelling headphones. Turn the volume down on the television or radio. And stay ahead of the game by asking your doctor for a referral for a hearing check-up, especially if you’ve begun to have signs of hearing loss.

Do you believe diabetes has affected your hearing? Add your comment below.

More from Amy Campbell about diabetes complications:

Staying Healthy With Diabetes: Neuropathy
Staying Healthy With Diabetes: Protecting Your Eyes
Staying Healthy With Diabetes: Diabetic Kidney Disease