Diabetes Simplified: Listen-Up
Your diabetes can cause hearing loss
By Wil Dubois
I can never hear my wife when she asks me if I've checked my blood sugar. Or when she comments on a poor food choice I've made. But I suspect that this selective hearing loss is the kind that all long-term married folks develop for each other, and I don't blame it on my diabetes. But, as diabetes seems to mess up almost every other body system from head to toe, what about hearing? Can diabetes cause hearing loss?
Apparently so. According to the American Diabetes Association, hearing loss is twice as common in people with diabetes as it is in people without diabetes, and 30% higher in folks with pre-diabetes. dFolks also seem to get hearing problems at a much younger age than people who aren't members of our club.
How on earth could diabetes affect hearing?
So the statistics show there's a problem. But what is the cause? Why does it happen to us? Well at this point its all guesswork because no one has nailed down a cause, but the most likely suspects are those damn delicate and easily-damaged capillaries that are impacted by elevated blood sugars. These are the same structures that, when damaged, lead to vision loss or kidney trouble. As it happens, your ears are chock-full of capillaries and they play an important function in how your ears work. But the ear relies on a neural net in the inner ear for its function as well, so the hearing loss seen in us dFolk could actually be a special kind of neuropathy.
Or it could be both blood and nerves. Autopsies of folks less lucky than you and I have revealed both sclerosis of the auditory artery and atrophy of the spiral ganglion (the main nerve "trunk line" from the ear to the brain), among other break-downs in the ear's complicated anatomy. Well, that's what I heard, anyway.
Wilder theories about the causes of diabetic hearing loss include the facts that most people with diabetes need to take medications for high blood pressure and that some types of high blood pressure pills can adversely affect hearing (especially the diuretic class, a.k.a. "water pills"), and that ear infections and fungi thrive in glucose-rich environments, and either of those can cause permanent damage to the internal structure of the ear.
Symptoms of hearing loss
You might think it would be clear as a bell if you were having some hearing problems, but hearing loss is unique in that is creeps up on you a little at a time.
I said, HEARING LOSS IS UNIQUE IN THAT IT CREEPS UP ON YOU A LITTLE AT A TIME.
If you think everyone around you has started mumbling, you might be suffering hearing loss. If you have to ask people to repeat themselves, you might have hearing loss. If the darn TV is turned up to the max and you still can't hear it, you might have hearing loss.
If you are suffering from hearing loss, some tonal values tend to be impacted before others. For instance you might have greater trouble understanding children. And women. Just like the Titanic, it's women and children first with hearing loss. Another area where trouble is first noticed is in environments with lots of overlapping sounds, like crowded places with many people talking at once, or even conversations with several people at once rather than a pleasant one-on-one.
The flip side
Can you hear me now? In addition to hearing loss, an equally bedeviling hearing problem is tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, which is also more common in people with diabetes. Rather than not hearing women, children, and well-intended nagging spouses, people suffering from tinnitus hear things that aren't there at all: Ringing, whistling, buzzing, chirping, and more.
Tinnitus is made worse by taking aspirin and some antidepressants, both common as part of diabetes therapy; and to make matters worse still, favorite activities of dFolks such as drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, and consuming caffeine all exacerbate tinnitus. Oh, so too does elevated blood pressure and thyroid trouble. So I heard, anyway.
Of course the first rule in all these diabetes complications is to try to get your blood sugar under the tightest possible control. As there's nothing inherent in about diabetes that should affect hearing, the increased levels of hearing loss in persons with diabetes is likely due to elevated sugar rather than to diabetes itself. Hear me out on this. We know that high levels of sugar are like battery acid in the blood, and can wreak all kinds of biological chaos, and that virtually all the other complications of diabetes are more accurately considered complications of elevated glucose. Why should this be any different?
So should you ad an audiologist to your medical team? If you've got ringing in your ears, or if you or your loved ones suspect hearing loss, a visit to an expert may be in order, but start with your primary care doc first. Both hearing loss and tinnitus it can actually be caused by a simple build-up of earwax. And yes, people with diabetes also get more earwax than non-dFolks. If you primary can't see anything obvious, a referral to a specialist is in order.
Tinnitus is tricky to treat, but it is treatable using tools ranging from medications to white noise generators; and in the case of hearing loss an audiologist can determine how severe the loss is and what the various treatment options might be. Treatments for hearing loss include surgery, implants to replace damaged sections of the ear's architecture, and hearing aids. Modern hearing aids are tiny and high tech, and in some cases can return your hearing to normal.
And the best thing about a hearing aid is that you can always turn it off if you get sick of your spouse asking about your blood sugar.
At least that's what I've heard.
Wil Dubois is the author of four multi-award-winning books about diabetes. He is a PWD type 1, and is the diabetes coordinator for a rural non-profit clinic. Visit his blog, LifeAfterDX.
NOTE: The information is not intended to be a replacement or substitute for consultation with a qualified medical professional or for professional medical advice related to diabetes or another medical condition. Please contact your physician or medical professional with any questions and concerns about your medical condition.
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