Worldwide more than 415 million people have been diagnosed with diabetes, putting them at risk of high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, stroke and other health conditions. However, what many people do not know, is that diabetes can also cause hearing loss.
This year, World Diabetes Day falls on 14 November. The International Diabetes Federation’s global Diabetes Awareness Campaign calls for education “to protect tomorrow”, and this education includes awareness of the fact that hearing loss is yet another health condition related to this globally prevalent disease.
“Our study found a strong and consistent link between hearing impairment and diabetes using a number of different outcomes” – Catherine Cowie, PhD
A 2008 study conducted by the National Institutes of Health found that hearing loss is twice as common in adults with diabetes.
“As diabetes becomes more common, the disease may become a more significant contributor to hearing loss," said senior author Catherine Cowie, PhD, of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).
So, what are the characteristics of this common lifestyle disease called diabetes?
Diabetes: A Closer Look
Diabetes is a cluster of diseases characterised by high blood glucose levels – the result of defects in insulin action, insulin production, or both.
At present, 537 million people worldwide are living with diabetes. In South Africa, 11.3% of adults (approximately 4.2 million) have been diagnosed with diabetes, while in the United States, nearly 21 million people are afflicted by this illness. Diabetes is a major cause of heart disease and stroke and the most common cause of blindness, kidney failure, and lower limb amputations in adults.
Pre-diabetes, which causes no symptoms, is estimated to affect about 65% percent of all South Africans – one out of every three people. In the United States, pre-diabetes affects about 54 million adults. Many pre-diabetes sufferers will go on to develop Type 2 diabetes within the next ten years.
With global diabetes statistics and numbers as alarming as these, a closer look at the link between this prevalent ailment and hearing loss is certainly warranted.
Examining the Connection Between Diabetes and Hearing Loss
So, what exactly is diabetes, and what causes it? A simple way of explaining this disease is that, when you have diabetes, your body has difficulty turning the food you eat into energy.
Normally, the body converts food into energy by breaking it down into sugar, which is then released into the bloodstream. When there’s a rise in blood sugar levels, the pancreas should release insulin. This allows the sugar to enter cells, where it is used as energy. However, when a person has diabetes, the body does not make enough insulin, or does not use it optimally.
Over time, too much sugar left in the bloodstream can damage nerves and small blood vessels, which can also affect the inner ears. On the other hand, nerve signals travelling from the inner ear to the brain can be damaged by low blood sugar levels, something that can ultimately lead to hearing loss.
Common Signs of Hearing Loss
Hearing loss as a result of diabetes happens gradually over time. This slow onset can make it hard for a person to even be aware of their hearing loss or deteriorating hearing faculty. Often, the friends, colleagues and family members of someone who suffers from hearing loss will be aware of it before they themselves are!
Some common signs of hearing loss:
- Often asking others to repeat themselves
- Struggling to follow conversations that include more than two people
- Thinking people are mumbling
- Difficulty hearing in noisy places
- Setting the TV or radio at a volume too loud for others nearby
How to know if you are experiencing hearing loss
If you are unsure of whether you are suffering from hearing loss, an online assessment or smartphone audiometer app can give you a baseline indication. However, the results obtained from such applications should not be taken at face value. Should you fail an at-home or self-hearing screening, make sure you share the results with your doctor, who can then refer you to a specialist for further tests or treatment.
Mitigating Hearing loss: Caring for Your Ears
Though hearing loss cannot be reversed or cured, it can be mitigated with awareness and through the use of hearing aids. Let’s look at some ways you can look after your ears, conserve your hearing and prevent further hearing loss if you are suffering from diabetes.
- Monitor your blood sugar. Keep your blood sugar levels as close to the target level as possible.
- Have your hearing checked every year. Visit an audiologist as part of your diabetes care schedule.
- Be aware of and avoid other causes of hearing loss. Loud noises – the most common cause of hearing loss – can worsen the damage caused by diabetes, so avoid exposure to this as much as you can.
- Talk to your doctor about all possible side effects of your medications. Some diabetes medications can further harm your hearing, causing ototoxicity. Do your own research and ask your doctor or healthcare provider whether there are other medication options available to you.
- Use assistive technology to stay engaged. Talk to your audiologist about getting a hearing aid, or ask them to recommend other tools with which to monitor your hearing.
How to Find an Audiologist or Hearing Healthcare Practitioner
Over 1.5 billion people worldwide, including those living with diabetes, suffer from some form of hearing loss. Despite this high number, not many people know how to find the right audiologist or hearing healthcare practitioner to walk their hearing loss journey with them.
A good start would be to enquire with your family doctor or a general practitioner. However, keep in mind that many physicians do not consider hearing loss a medical issue. Many may not even include a hearing screening as part of an annual health checkup, so do insist on one if you feel that this is necessary.
If your doctor cannot point you in the right direction, you can take the following steps:
- Visit a local health clinic. If you live in South Africa, make an appointment at your local provincial health clinic or provincial hospital. The personnel there will be able to provide you with the necessary information and guidance to make a hearing screening appointment with an audiologist or hearing healthcare professional in your area.
- Contact an ENT (Ear, Nose & Throat) department. This department at your nearest university medical centre or government hospital may be able to supply you with a list of audiologists in your area.
- Do an online search. A quick Google search for “audiologists near me” or “hearing test” may turn up local results. In South Africa, you can visit this directory of local independent audiologists. In the United States, you can visit the American Academy of Audiology’s website.
- Ask for a recommendation. If you have a friend or family member who is living with hearing loss or makes use of hearing aids, they may be able to share their experience with you and recommend an audiologist, audiology clinic or other hearing healthcare resources that could be of use.
Combat Hearing Loss By Staying Up-to-date on Hearing Technology and the Latest Advances in Audiometry
As a leading South African med-tech company, eMoyo strives to ensure that everyone has access to quality hearing healthcare and the best quality of life possible, regardless of their location or socio-economic status.
eMoyo’s range of revolutionary Kuduwave portable audiometers is telemedicine enabled, ensuring clinically validated, boothless hearing tests in just about any location or environment.
As World Diabetes Day 2022 approaches, let’s work together to spread awareness and empower those most at risk of diabetes-related hearing loss.
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