Though not as well known as neuropathy in the hands and feet, hearing loss can be a complication of uncontrolled diabetes. Here’s how to protect your ears when you live with diabetes and identify the symptoms of hearing loss.
A Surprising Complication
Ed Weinsberg wasn’t surprised when he developed burning sensations in his feet in 2006. His health care provider had told him he might experience this sign of peripheral neuropathy, a side effect of his recently diagnosed type 2 diabetes. Medication helped reduce the sensations. But a few years ago, Ed, 62, a former rabbi and author living in Sarasota, Florida, began to experience frustrating problems with his hearing.
“Every sentence began with, ‘What did you say?’ ” he says. “My ear, nose, and throat doctor wasn’t sure what was behind it.” By then Ed had already lost 50 percent of his hearing in his left ear. “But I suspected there might be a connection with my diabetes. I know it reduces blood flow to other parts of the body.”
Ed was onto something. Research shows that people with uncontrolled type 1 or type 2 diabetes are twice as likely as others to experience hearing loss. In a large study of people ages 20–69, researchers from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases found a strong association between diabetes and hearing problems, emerging as early as age 30.
A recent study from Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit reached much the same conclusion. Researchers found that in women younger than 60, the hearing was worse among those with type 1 or type 2 diabetes compared to women without diabetes, according to study coauthor Kathleen Yaremchuk, M.D., chair of otolaryngology at the hospital. And women ages 60–75 with poorly controlled diabetes had significantly worse hearing than those whose diabetes was considered well-controlled.
“When you think about complications of diabetes, this is not what you think about,” says Joanne Rinker, RD, CDE, with the North Carolina Diabetes Prevention and Control Branch. “But one in three people with diabetes will have trouble with their hearing because of complications from their elevated blood glucose.”
How Diabetes Hurts Your Hearing
Diabetes seems to affect hearing in several ways. When blood sugar rises, “there is a breakdown of nerves in the ears — the same kind of nerve damage that causes tingling and other symptoms in the fingertips and toes,” Rinker says. What’s more, the blood vessels in the ears are very small. “When blood sugar is high, blood running through the veins is like syrup,” she says. “Imagine how hard it is to get into the tiny capillaries of the cochlea — that can contribute to the hearing problems.”
In addition, “our hearing mechanisms rely on specialized cells called hair cells,” says Elizabeth A. Dinces, M.D., assistant professor of otolaryngology at Montefiore Medical Center in Bronx, New York. “They are very fragile and susceptible to changes in the environment, including the effect of increased glucose in the blood.”
No diabetes complication is desirable, but Yaremchuk says hearing loss can be particularly insidious. “If you can’t hear, you don’t know what you’re missing,” she says. People who experience hearing loss can become isolated from others and less involved. “They stop being included in the conversation and withdraw,” she says. Depression can soon follow. Other research suggests that hearing loss also increases the risk for dementia because it reduces stimuli from the environment that keep the brain healthy.
Protect Your Ears from Diabetes Complications
The best way to protect your hearing from damage due to diabetes is to maintain good control of your blood sugar. That includes taking your prescribed medications, eating a healthful diet, controlling portions, and making exercise a part of every day. “Strict glycemic control has known overall benefits for patients, including hearing,” Dinces says.
If you think diabetes has affected your hearing, tell your doctor or ask for a referral to an audiologist for an examination. Although hearing loss is not reversible, a hearing aid can help enormously. And hearing aids have come a long way in the past 20 years. “Today’s hearing aid is not your father’s hearing aid,” Yaremchuk says. Older hearing aids amplified all sounds equally, but those available today can adjust for distortions at high and low frequencies. “They’re phenomenal in terms of their abilities,” she says.
Ed admits he was reluctant to use a hearing aid. “Like a lot of people, I was hesitant to admit that something that important had changed so drastically,” he says. While the device didn’t restore his hearing entirely, his ability to hear and engage with others has improved dramatically. “Now I can hear people more clearly,” he says, “and I am far less frustrated.”
Signs of Hearing Loss
- A hearing problem causes you to feel embarrassed when you meet new people.
- You have difficulty hearing when someone speaks in a whisper.
- A hearing problem frustrates you or triggers arguments when talking to family members.
- A hearing problem causes you to attend public events or services less often than you would like.
- The difficulty with your hearing limits or hampers your personal or social life.
- A hearing problem causes you difficulty when dining in a restaurant.