Hearing management

06 December 2019

Worried about hearing loss? Don't underestimate the role a healthy diet plays in reducing the risk

The benefits of healthy eating go way beyond weight management, and these three diets are tied to a lower risk of hearing loss, say scientists.

Hearing loss can be frustrating, isolating and terrifying. According to Harvard Health, age-related hearing loss affects one in three of us by the time we turn 65. But there’s some positive news from the findings of a recent study: sticking to a healthy diet may reduce the risk of acquired hearing loss, especially among older women.

The study was published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, and the investigators from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston recruited 3 135 women (in their 50s and early 60s) from 19 geographically diverse testing sites across the US in the Nurses’ Health Study II Conservation of Hearing Study (CHEARS).

The study was conducted from 2012 to 2018 and had trained teams of licensed audiologists follow standardised CHEARS methods to examine changes in the women’s hearing sensitivities. They found out that eating a healthy diet may reduce the risk of acquired hearing loss.

"A common perception is that hearing loss is an inevitable part of the ageing process. However, our research focuses on identifying potentially modifiable risk factors – that is, things that we can change in our diet and lifestyle to prevent hearing loss or delay its progression," said lead author Sharon Curhan, adding:

"The benefits of adherence to healthful dietary patterns have been associated with numerous positive health outcomes and eating a healthy diet may also help reduce the risk of hearing loss.” 

The study

Audiologists measured changes in pure-tone hearing thresholds (the lowest volume that a pitch can be detected by the participant in a given ear) of participants during the course of three years.

Tones of different frequencies (0.5, 1 and 2 kHz as low-frequencies; at 3 kHz and 4 kHz as mid-frequencies; and at 6 kHz and 8 kHz as higher frequencies) were presented at variable "loudness" levels, and participants were asked to indicate when they could just barely hear the tone.

Then, using more than 20 years of dietary intake information that was collected every four years beginning in 1991, researchers studied how closely participants' long-term diets resembled some well-established and currently recommended dietary patterns, including the Alternate Mediterranean diet (AMED), the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, and the Alternate Healthy Index-2010 (AHEI-2010). 

The results showed that women who followed the healthy diets had an almost 30% lower odds of a decline in mid-frequency hearing sensitivities compared to those who followed less healthy diets. In the higher frequencies, the odds were up to 25% lower. 

Previous studies

There are previous studies that have suggested that higher intake of specific nutrients as well as certain foods such as carotenoids, beta-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin (found in squash, carrots, oranges and other fruits and vegetables), folate (found in legumes, leafy greens, and other foods), and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (found in seafood and fish), are associated with a lower risk of self-reported hearing loss.

However, investigators of the recent study wanted to further understand the connection between diet and hearing loss, and therefore captured all dietary patterns, and objectively measured longitudinal changes in hearing sensitivities. 

"The association between diet and hearing sensitivity decline encompassed frequencies that are critical for speech understanding," said Curhan.

"We were surprised that so many women demonstrated hearing decline over such a relatively short period of time," Curhan added.

Curhan also expressed concern that the participants were of a younger age than when many people think about having their hearing checked. 

“After only three years, 19% had hearing loss in the low frequencies, 38% had hearing loss in the mid-frequencies, and almost half had hearing loss in the higher frequencies. Despite this considerable worsening in their hearing sensitivities, hearing loss among many of these participants would not typically be detected or addressed."

Never leave hearing loss untreated

It is a misconception that hearing loss only affects older people. There are varying degrees of hearing loss and it can happen gradually, without you even realising you need to take it seriously. The Association of Independent Hearing Healthcare Professionals advises everyone to go for regular hearing tests, and recommends the following:

  • 18 to 45 years old: every five years
  • 45 to 60 years old: every three years
  • 60 years and older: every two years

It takes roughly 60 to 90 minutes to have the test done, and it can make a big difference to your overall quality of life. 

Read: What happens during a hearing test?

Here are a few signs you might need to get your hearing tested, according to Harvard Health and the NHS:

  • You have difficulty hearing on the phone.
  • It tires you from having to concentrate while listening.
  • Family members complain that you play the TV or radio too loudly.
  • You often find yourself asking people to repeat what they say, or you misunderstand what they are saying.

Symptoms that could potentially indicate a more serious condition or disease include ringing in the ears (tinnitus), discharge or bleeding from the ear, nausea, dizziness or problems with balance or equilibrium, or deep earache, among others. If you experience any of this, you should call your doctor immediately. 

Image: iStock

Ask the Expert

Hearing Expert

Minette Lister graduated with a Bachelor of Communication Pathology (Audiology) from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Westville in 2015. Thereafter, she completed her compulsory year of community service at Phoenix Assessment and Therapy Centre in Durban. In 2017, Minette started working for Thompson and Hoffman Audiology Inc. She is passionate about working with children and adults to diagnose and manage hearing loss using state of the art technology. Minette offers hearing screening programmes for newborn and high-risk babies, as well as school-aged children, in order to decrease the incidence of late or unidentified hearing loss.

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