Girl listening with her hand on an ear

More than Missing the Punch Line

By Joyce Chen, AuD, Registered Audiologist

Don’t let hearing problems affect your health and quality of life.

Hearing loss is the third most common chronic condition after heart disease and arthritis.  As people age, they may begin to lose their hearing as a result of the natural aging process.  The primary cause of hearing loss is exposure to loud noises.  There are also medical causes such as viruses, bacteria, heart conditions or stroke, head injuries, tumours, and certain medicines.  New studies have revealed some surprising links between hearing loss and medical conditions like diabetes, depression, and cognitive declines.  Here is a summary of the recent studies.


Ninety percent of people with tinnitus also have hearing loss.  Tinnitus affects around 17 percent of the general population.  Tinnitus can be caused by hearing loss, ear injury, or a circulatory system disorder.


The impact of hearing loss is a lot deeper than not hearing certain sounds. Uncorrected hearing loss gives rise to poorer quality of life, isolation, and reduced social activity, leading to depression. The impact depends on many variables such as the severity of the loss, age of onset, the communication needs and demands of the person, and personality, among others.  However, we know that hearing loss is linked to frustration, fatigue, depression, anxiety, and isolation. 

Communication, which is so important to social interactions, becomes a source of stress when someone has to strain to hear others speak, and frequent misunderstandings result in embarrassment. Hearing loss results in social isolation.  Adults with untreated hearing loss tend to withdraw from engaging with family and friends. They are more likely to report depression, anxiety, anger and frustration, emotional instability and paranoia, and are less likely to participate in social activities than those who wear hearing aids.  A 2014 study by the National Council on Aging indicates 36 percent of patients who began wearing hearing aids experienced improved overall mental health, while 34 percent increased their social engagement.

Cognitive Decline

Mounting evidence shows a relationship between hearing loss and cognitive decline. According to a study by Dr. Lin at Johns Hopkins University, seniors with hearing loss are significantly more likely to develop dementia over time than those who retain their hearing.  The worse the initial hearing loss, the more likely the person is to develop dementia than adults whose hearing is normal.  Degraded hearing may force the brain to devote too much of its energy to processing sound.  Those with hearing loss experience a 30 percent to 40 percent greater decline in thinking abilities compared to those without hearing loss.  A separate study shows that people with a hearing loss develop cognitive problems 3.2 years sooner than those of a similar age and lifestyle who have no hearing loss. In addition, hearing-impaired people tend to withdraw socially and the lack of regular interaction leads to mental stagnation.

Brain Shrinkage

Although the brain becomes smaller with age, the shrinkage seems to be fast-tracked in older adults with hearing loss, according to the results of a study by researchers from Johns Hopkins and the National Institute on Aging.  The report revealed that those with impaired hearing lost more than an additional cubic centimetre of brain tissue each year compared to those with normal hearing.  Use it or loss it.

Heart Health

The inner ear is extremely sensitive to blood flow.  Studies show that a healthy cardiovascular system—a person’s heart, arteries, and veins—has a positive effect on hearing.  Inadequate blood flow and trauma to the blood vessels of the inner ear can contribute to hearing loss.

Researchers concluded individuals with cardiovascular disorders may be more prone to hearing loss and therefore in need of hearing evaluations. They also found an association between low-frequency hearing loss and numerous cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disorders.


Current smokers have a 70 percent higher risk of having hearing loss than non-smokers.  Studies also found that smokers were 15.1 percent more likely to develop hearing loss, while passive smokers were 28 percent more likely to develop hearing loss than non-smokers.


Hearing loss is twice as common in people with diabetes compared to those without.  Adults whose blood glucose is higher than normal but not high enough for a diabetes diagnosis have a 30 percent higher rate of hearing loss compared to those with normal blood sugar.


More than 200 medications (prescription and over-the-counter) on the market today are known to be toxic to the ears.  The list of known ototoxic drugs includes aspirin, quinin, loop diuretics or water pills, certain antibiotics, some anticancer drugs, some anesthetics, environmental chemicals like carbon monoxide, hexane, and mercury.

Safety and Balance

Hearing loss decreases awareness of the surrounding environment and increases cognitive load.  In turn, this raises the potential for falls. Studies show that people with a hearing loss are three times more likely to fall for every 25 dB of hearing loss.  Every additional 10 dB of hearing loss increases the chances of falling by 1.4 times the original risk. 

Large scale studies are underway to clarify the role of hearing aids in helping to maintain or slow the rate of cognitive decline. If you have any doubts about your hearing, get it tested.  Better hearing usually associates with better health and quality of life.

Joyce Chen, AuD, Registered Audiologist and Registered Hearing Instrument Practitioner, has more than 24 years of clinical, educational and dispensing experience. Dr. Chen has worked with children and adults in both public audiology clinics and private practices in British Columbia, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.  She moved to Kelowna in 2000 and worked for the Audiology Clinic of Interior Health and Expert Hearing Solutions before opening her own audiology clinic Okanagan Hearing Centre in 2012.  Okanagan Hearing Centre is independent of any manufacturers. Visit

*Reprint from our Summer 2016 Issue

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