Could You Repeat That?: How Diabetes Can Affect Hearing

Maybe it’s from all those mega-decibel rock concerts of your youth or just the ravages of old age, but you find yourself turning up the volume on the radio or TV with increasing frequency. And you are asking people to repeat things a lot more often than you used to with no senior moments involved.

It could it be that your hearing is affected and that your diabetes is playing a role. An increased risk of hearing loss in people with diabetes is now a given, and some organizations such as the American Diabetes Association (ADA) and the National Institute of Kidney and Digestive diseases (NIDDK) are trying to spread awareness about this problem.

Hearing loss in the general population is quite common. Approximately 29 percent of people aged 45 to 64 are affected in some way. However, hearing loss is twice as common in people with diabetes as those without and is present in 30 percent of people with pre-diabetes.

The risk and degree of hearing loss appears to parallel the progression of the disease Hearing loss can occur at all sound pitch levels, but sounds in the higher register may be affected more.

How significant is the loss?

A large study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2008 found that approximately 21 percent of adults with diabetes had hearing loss of low or mid-frequency compared to 9 percent in those without diabetes.

For high frequency sounds, more than half of those with diabetes had mild or greater loss as compared to only 32 percent of those without diabetes. More recent studies have verified these findings and discovered a relationship between the level of control and degree of impairment.

As with most diabetic complications, high blood glucose levels appear to be the damaging agent. The nerves and blood vessels of the inner ear are not immune to the insults that diabetes imparts to the nerves and blood vessels of other organs such as the stomach and feet.

According to The American Diabetes Association (ADA) you may have hearing loss if you:

  • Frequently ask others to repeat themselves
  • Have trouble following conversations that involve more than two people
  • Think that others are mumbling
  • Have problems hearing in noisy places such as busy restaurants
  • Have trouble hearing the voices of women and small children
  • Turn up the TV or radio volume too loud for others who are nearby

If any of these symptoms trouble you, ask your health care provider to refer you to a hearing specialist such as an audiologist who can distinguish the type of hearing loss you have and prescribe the correct type of hearing aide. (There are different causes for hearing loss—the type associated with diabetes is called “sensorineural hearing loss”)

And although hearing loss is permanent, controlling your blood glucose levels can help prevent further damage.

If the thought of a hearing aide conjures up visions of an old crone with a megaphone protruding out of one ear; rest assured that times have changed. Hearing aides have become much more effective, efficient and discreet.

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