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Hear me out: The surprising link between diabetes and hearing loss

An estimated 34 million people in the U.S. have diabetes, and 34.5 million have some type of hearing loss. But did you know there’s a sizable overlap between these two large groups?

According to the American Diabetes Association, a recent study found that hearing loss is twice as common in people with diabetes as it is in those who don’t have the disease. Of the 88 million adults in the U.S. who have prediabetes, the rate of hearing loss is 30 percent higher than in those with normal blood glucose. These risks increase if you have other conditions, such as neuropathies, high blood pressure or cardiovascular disease. Evidence has also long shown that older adults with moderate to severe hearing loss are more likely to report a lower quality of life, defined by their ability to perform normal activities of daily living.

Right now, it’s unclear how exactly diabetes leads to hearing loss. The prevailing view is that poor blood sugar management—namely, high blood glucose levels associated with diabetes—damages small blood vessels in the inner ear, similar to the way in which it can damage your eyes and kidneys. 

How to protect your hearing if you have diabetes

So, what can you do? Think EAR: Evaluation-Awareness-Risk reduction.

Evaluation

If you have diabetes, a professional hearing screening can be one useful, early precaution. Even if you don’t have hearing impairment now, it’ll provide you and your diabetes care team with a baseline for further checks down the road. In fact, in the latest 2021 Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes, audiology screening has now been added to the list of referrals to consider for initial care management. 

Related: 4 things to watch for if your diabetes goes unchecked

Awareness

A second thing you can do is be intentional about constantly keeping on top of your hearing yourself. You don’t have to be an audiologist or have special equipment to recognize when you’re starting to experience hearing loss. A number of validated self-assessment tools are available to you, such as the Hearing Handicap Inventory for the Elderly Screening (HHIE-S) from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, or this simple set of yes/no starter questions:

  • Do you have a problem hearing over the telephone?
  • Do you hear better in one ear than the other when you are on the phone?
  • Do you have trouble understanding when two or more people talk at the same time?
  • Do people complain that you turn the TV volume up too high?
  • Do you have to strain to understand what people say?
  • Do you have trouble hearing in a noisy place?
  • Do you have trouble hearing in restaurants?
  • Do you have dizziness, pain, or ringing in your ears?
  • Do you ask people to repeat what they said?
  • Do family members or coworkers tell you that you are not hearing what they say?
  • Do many people you talk to seem to mumble or not speak clearly?
  • Do you have trouble understanding women and children?
  • Do people get annoyed because you don’t understand what they say?

The Down’s Audiogram may help even you get a picture of what decibels you are and aren’t hearing. If you answer yes to a few of these questions, or feel your hearing certain decibels has diminished, talk to your care team about getting your hearing medically evaluated.

Related: Making diabetes self-care a family affair

Risk reduction

Do you know how diabetes can affect all aspects of your body, including hearing? Do you know how you can significantly reduce these risks of complications? A third thing you can do is to equip yourself through formal diabetes self-care training, where educators will show you daily lifestyle skills to manage your blood sugars effectively, practical strategies to lower your risks of longer-term, diabetes-related complications like hearing loss, and simple tips to protect hearing from potentially harmful loud noisesaround you.

Want to learn more about diabetes self-care? Talk to a diabetes care and education specialist today.

About the author

Lynn McLellan, RD, CDE

Lynn McLellan is a registered dietician, certified diabetes educator and the current coordinator for the Diabetes Self-Management Education program at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Temple. The program launched in 1981 and is now among the longest running, ADA-certified diabetes education classes in the U.S. The program also hosts a free monthly diabetes support group open to the community.

Hear me out: The surprising link between diabetes and hearing loss