When you think of February, the first image that might come to mind is a heart. From heart-shaped boxes of chocolates to Valentine’s cards to stuffed bears clutching hearts, the traditional symbol of love seems to be everywhere. But what if, during the month of February, you looked at all of those hearts in a new way? February is National Heart Month, and in honor of that, we are taking the opportunity to heighten the awareness of the connection between heart health and hearing health.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 610,000 people in the U.S. die of heart disease each year. That means 25 percent of all deaths are related to heart disease, making it the leading cause of death for both men and women in the U.S. In addition to those alarming statistics, there are upwards of 735,000 heart attacks each year in the U.S. alone.
The ear is a window to the heart
So why are we discussing heart health in the context of hearing? It has been said the ear is a window to the heart, and that is more than just flowery language. A growing body of research is leading experts to believe that your hearing and your heart are closely connected. A study presented by David R. Friedland, MD, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Otolaryngology and Communication Sciences at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Madison hypothesized that low-frequency hearing loss may be a predictor for current or impending cardiovascular disease.
Low-frequency hearing loss may be a predictor for current or impending cardiovascular disease.
But the connections don’t end there. A 2011 study published in Occupational & Environmental Medicine discovered that long-term exposure to excessive noise in the workplace is strongly associated with coronary heart disease, the most common type of heart disease. The risks were especially high for young men who smoke. While the exact mechanics are not known, the findings just reinforce the fact that the cardiovascular system and the hearing system are inextricably linked.
Shared risk factors for hearing loss and heart disease
Here is what is known: The inner ear and its mechanisms, because of their small size, are particularly susceptible to any changes in blood flow. So while a healthy cardiovascular system benefits hearing by allowing adequate blood flow, an unhealthy cardiovascular system inhibits blood flow to the inner ear and causes changes that can be irreversible. Restrictions in the blood vessels leading to the inner ear cause the sensitive hair cells within the inner ear to die, and unfortunately the hair cells don’t regenerate.
There are a number of factors which affect your cardiovascular system as well as your hearing system, meaning the risk of heart disease and hearing loss go hand-in-hand. The greatest risk factors that both conditions have in common include:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
Smoking not only damages blood vessels, but increases blood pressure and causes plaque buildup and hardening of the arteries, causing a rate of heart disease at two to four times that of non-smokers. And though the direct link between smoking and hearing loss is not known, what is known is that the effect on the cardiovascular system from smoking increases the risk of hearing loss. What is also undisputed is that smokers have a 15 percent higher risk of hearing loss than non-smokers.
According to the CDC, 47 percent of Americans have at least one of these major risk factors. Other factors that increase your risk of heart disease as well as hearing loss are:
Another risk factor for both heart disease and hearing loss is stress. Stress causes a change in the body known as vasoconstriction, which is reduced blood flow and oxygen to vital organs including the heart and the hearing system. In addition, stress increases heart rate, damages blood vessels and raises blood pressure, all of which increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
What can you do about hearing loss and heart health?
You may be thinking you have to completely change your lifestyle to protect your heart along with your hearing. But don’t worry. Even making a few small changes here and there can make a difference. Here are some simple ways to protect your heart and your ears at the same time:
- Eat a healthy diet, including more fish: Tuna, herring and salmon contain omega-3 fatty acids which lower risk of hearing loss and promote heart health by decreasing the chance of heart related medical conditions and arterial plaque buildup.
- Exercise: Exercise reduces obesity, improves heart health, decreases blood pressure, lowers cholesterol levels and reduces stress.
- Stop smoking
- Cut back on alcohol consumption
- Get more sleep
- Take frequent breaks during work to reduce stress
Get your hearing checked
Also, anyone over the age of 40 should request a hearing check as part of a routine physical exam. “Hearing health should not be assessed in a vacuum,” said Charles A. Bishop, Au.D., Assistant Professor in the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s department of Otolaryngology and Communicative Sciences. “There is simply too much evidence that hearing loss is related to cardiovascular disease and other health conditions. It’s time we maximized the information we have in order to benefit the individual’s overall wellbeing.”