Hands, feet, eyes and kidneys — if you’re among the more than 37 million Americans living with diabetes, all of these body parts are at risk of nerve damage as a result of the condition. Also at risk? Your ears. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), hearing loss is twice as common in people with diabetes than in people the same age without the disease.
Experts say that keeping your diabetes well managed, watching for warning signs of hearing loss and making time for yearly hearing screenings are key to protecting your ears while living with diabetes. Here’s what else to know.
The diabetes-hearing loss connection
Diabetes can damage the blood vessels and nerves of the inner ear, as well as disrupt the nerve signals that carry sound input from the inner ear to the brain, says Hope Lanter, a lead audiologist at Hear.com, a hearing care services provider. Both types of damage can cause hearing loss.
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And both high and low blood sugar play a role in causing this damage, which underscores the importance of keeping blood sugar levels in check, she adds. "The extremes, when we don’t have them managed, start to cause a wear-and-tear effect over time."
Some diabetes medications can also harm your hearing. The CDC recommends asking your doctor or pharmacist about the side effects of your prescriptions and sharing that information with an audiologist, a specialist trained in identifying and treating hearing loss and related disorders.
Signs of hearing loss
Hearing loss caused by diabetes is sensorineural, meaning it is permanent but can be treated with hearing aids.
Test Your Hearing at Home
Online hearing tests offered by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Audiology Project can help you assess your hearing at home. AARP members can also access a free hearing test by phone. If the results show you may have hearing loss, ask your medical provider about seeing an audiologist for further testing.
Because hearing loss tends to develop gradually, you may not notice it at first — or other people might pick up on your hearing loss before you do, says audiologist Kathy Dowd, executive director of the Audiology Project, a nonprofit organization that raises awareness about the link between chronic diseases like diabetes and hearing and balance disorders.
Signs of hearing loss to watch out for include:
- Asking others to repeat themselves, or thinking that others are mumbling
- Difficulty following group conversations
- Trouble hearing in noisy places, such as restaurants
- Problems hearing small children or people with quiet voices
- Increasing the TV or radio volume too loud for those around you
Take charge of your hearing
Left untreated, hearing loss can lead to feelings of depression and anxiety and cause trouble communicating with your family, colleagues and health care providers.
Ways to monitor and protect your hearing include:
- Getting regular screenings with an audiologist. The CDC recommends that you have your hearing tested by an audiologist when you are first diagnosed with diabetes, followed by yearly tests thereafter as part of your overall diabetes care schedule. "You can't see blood pressure; you can't see high blood sugar. You have to test for it," Dowd says. "And it's the same thing with hearing — you have to test for it."
- Sharing results from your audiologist with the rest of your primary care team.
- Protecting your ears. Wear ear protection when needed, like around leaf blowers or at sporting events, and avoid using cotton swabs or other implements to clean your ears.
- Monitoring your blood sugar.
- Not delaying treatment for any hearing loss you’re already experiencing. "The earlier you take care of [hearing loss] and the more proactive you are, the better," Lanter says.
Sarah Elizabeth Adler joined aarp.org as a writer in 2018. Her pieces on science, art and culture have appeared in The Atlantic, where she was previously an editorial fellow, California magazine and elsewhere.