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Diabetes and Hearing Loss: The Silent Threat

Diabetes, General

Although more than 10% of Americans live with diabetes, most of us don’t realize how it can impact hearing. Damage to hearing is literally a silent threat the disease brings.

Uncontrolled blood sugar damages nerves and blood vessels throughout the body. You may have heard of vision problems and numb feet as side effects of diabetes. That same damage can impact nerves and blood vessels involved in hearing.

And it’s not just high blood sugar that causes hearing loss. “The higher blood sugar levels damage vessels and nerves, but the lower blood sugar levels affect how the nerve signals travel to the brain,” explains Dr. Nancy Bowen-Hicks, an audiologist with Adventist Health Portland’s rehabilitation services.

The impacts of hearing loss

Hearing loss impacts many aspects of daily life. Conversations with friends, family and co-workers become more difficult. Even early hearing loss can make it hard to understand people when you’re in a crowded room.

Loss of hearing can also make it hard to think and remember things. This cognitive decline happens because your mind only has so much bandwidth to process information. If you struggle to hear people, that processing goes to understanding sounds instead of thinking or remembering.

How to avoid diabetic hearing loss

That’s why it’s critical to watch for signs of and take steps to avoid hearing loss. If you have diabetes, you should be even more careful.

Control your blood sugar: Because both high and low blood sugar can damage your hearing, it’s vital to control your levels. Work with your doctor to keep your blood sugar well-controlled. This is good advice for everyone: Even people with prediabetes have a 30% greater chance of hearing loss.

Watch for signs of hearing loss: Do you keep turning the TV volume up? Is it hard to hear people in a crowded room? Does it seem like people are mumbling? These can be signs that you're experiencing hearing loss.

Check in with your doctor: If you notice signs of hearing loss, be sure to check with your primary care provider or and/or diabetes specialist. They can check what medications you’re taking and make sure none are causing or increasing your hearing loss. They can also refer you to an audiologist for an evaluation.

Get a baseline hearing evaluation: As soon as you are diagnosed as diabetic or prediabetic, it’s time to get a full hearing evaluation with an audiologist, who can check how well you process sounds as well as physically hear them. It’s also a good idea for anyone age 50 to 60 or even younger people if they spend a lot of time in a noisy environment. This initial evaluation creates a solid baseline so you and your audiologist can watch for changes over time. Dr. Bowen-Hicks says these evaluations are often covered by health insurance.

Stay current on hearing evaluations: After your initial evaluation, “the audiologist will let you know how often to have an evaluation,” says Dr. Bowen-Hicks. For people with diabetes, annual evaluations are common. It’s important to get regular evaluations to catch changes early and make a plan to stop or slow your hearing loss.

Treatment for hearing loss

Your treatment plan depends on your level of hearing loss. “You want to make hearing easier,” Dr. Bowen-Hicks explains. What’s important is making sure the sound signal is getting to you, such as through hearing aids.

The good news is, improving hearing can also improve and even reverse problems with memory and thinking. “The hearing loss isn’t reversed, but the ability to process improves,” Dr. Bowen-Hicks says. “The brain will reorganize and find another way to better process the signal.”

It’s also important to stop the hearing loss with lifestyle changes. In addition to controlling your blood sugar, try to reduce how much time you spend in noisy environments — like loud machinery and loud earbuds — to protect your hearing.

How to schedule a hearing evaluation

If you have diabetes or signs of hearing loss, ask your doctor or nurse practitioner for a hearing evaluation referral. To schedule with the Adventist Health Portland audiology program, call us at 503-261-6962.