Now hear this: Diabetes can damage your auditory health

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Deaf woman takes a hearing test


According to the American Diabetes Association, almost 26 million people in the United States have diabetes, and an estimated 34.5 million have some type of hearing loss. 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. In addition, of the 79 million U.S. adults who have prediabetes, the rate of hearing loss is 30 percent higher than in those with normal blood glucose.

The American Diabetes Association

Most people know that diabetes can cause vision problems. But did you know that the disease can also damage your hearing?

“Outside of the medical world, very few people know about the link between hearing loss and diabetes and even fewer people understand it,” said Gloria Wong, Au.D., F-AAA, CCC-A, manager at Audiology Clinic at Chicago Hearing Society, a division of Anixter Center. “Even in the medical world there still needs to be more awareness of how hearing loss impacts health. That includes the relationship between hearing loss and diabetes, but goes so much deeper when you think about cardiovascular disease, dementia, accidents and more.”

The American Diabetes Association states that there are nearly 26 million Americans living with diabetes, with numbers rising. According to a study founded by the National Institutes of Health, adults with diabetes are more than twice as likely to have hearing loss than people without the disease.

Wong explained that complications of diabetes are a result of changes to the sensory nerves and the smallest system of blood vessels in the body.

“The hearing and auditory systems are also comprised of blood vessels and nerves, which may become damaged from diabetes and ultimately result in loss of hearing,” Wong said. “Most people only associate hearing loss with aging, but there are clearly many other factors in play; diabetes is definitely one of them.”

Jamie M. Stickley, Au.D., director of audiology at The Hearing Center, Franciscan Physician Network in Indiana, said that additional medical conditions can make diagnosing the cause of hearing loss in diabetic patients tricky.

“One of the largest barriers to finding a clear cut cause-and-effect relationship between diabetes and hearing loss is that the majority of diabetic patients also have additional medical conditions (as well as aging components and hereditary factors) that can also contribute to hearing loss,” Stickley said.

“However, excess sugar in your blood can lead to circulation issues and nerve damage,” Stickley said. “The auditory nerve is not exempt from this damage, and the auditory system as a whole is quite sensitive to circulatory changes.”

One of the most important things doctors — especially primary care physicians ­— can do, beyond helping patients to keep their diabetes under control, is to routinely check their patients’ hearing.

“Patient education and monitoring through regular health care visits, across all healthcare disciplines, is a key component to the successful management of diabetic patients,” Stickley said.

Patients should also be aware of any change in their hearing and discuss changes with their health care provider.

“Since it can happen slowly a lot of patients are not aware of the relationship between diabetes and hearing loss,” said Michele Massow, a seven-year veteran at CarePoint Ear, Nose, Throat and Sinus Centers, Northwest Indiana’s largest group of board certified otolaryngologists. “Healthcare providers should check a patient’s hearing as soon as they are diagnosed with diabetes and yearly thereafter. Providers can refer patients with suspected hearing loss to an otolaryngologist and or an audiologist to have an ear exam and hearing test.”

Left untreated, hearing loss can lead to a wide range of physical, mental and social issues, which research shows, according to Stickley, that the short- and long-term costs of untreated hearing loss far outweigh the costs of treatment.

“Untreated hearing loss is associated with impaired memory, social isolation, reduced job performance and earning power, increased anxiety and stress, and higher incidence of cardiovascular disease,” Wong said. “It should also be pointed out that hearing loss may lead to depression, which is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, and there is a known correlation between hearing loss and dementia according to information published by the National Institutes of Health.”

Many diabetic Americans who suffer from hearing loss may find it challenging to acquire help provided through insurance plans. Often, the hearing test may be covered but the hearing aids are not.

“Most insurance covers the cost of hearing evaluations, however some require a referral from their primary care doctor for that coverage to apply, which is the case with Medicare,” Stickley said. “If the patient is in need of hearing assistance for the treatment of hearing loss, approximately 80 percent of insurance policies do not cover hearing aids.”

The Chicago Hearing Society believes that hearing aids and hearing healthcare costs should be covered by insurance but until it is they will strive to help people with nowhere else to go.

“The average cost of testing, fitting and purchasing hearing aids averages around three thousand to six thousand dollars depending upon hearing aid technology,” Wong said. “Medicare does not cover hearing aids nor will the plans under the Affordable Health Care Act in Illinois. Unfortunately, hearing aids are not yet considered an essential health benefit in Illinois.”