Hearing loss is thought to impact the lives of over 35 million people in the US (source: The MarkeTrak VIII survey). The 2005 MarkeTrak VII report projected that the numbers of Americans with hearing loss will increase to 40 million by 2025 and 53 million by 2050. The majority linked to age related causes, a condition that can start in a person’s 40s but which is most apparent in people over 65.
The cause of hearing loss
In order to ‘hear’ a number of organs need to work in harmony to translate ‘triggers’ into meaningful information. The journey starts when sound waves are directed to the middle ear by the funneling effect of the outer ear (the pinna). This process pushes sound to the end of the ear canal causing the eardrum to vibrate and in turn passes these vibrations through three tiny bones of the ossicular chain in the middle ear. These three bones (malleus, incus and stapes) form a bridge to transfer the energy of the sound waves from the outer section of the ear through to the fluid section of the inner ear, the cochlea. A critical part of this journey culminates in the inner ear where thousands of tiny ‘hair cells,’ fire signals via the hearing nerve fibres to the brain to interpret.
Any interruption to this journey, whether it occurs in the outer, middle or inner ear can result in hearing difficulties. For the subject of age-related hearing loss the crucial factor is the deterioration of the ‘hair cells’ in the cochlea of the inner ear. During the natural process of ageing, these tiny hairs (cilia) begin to whither and deteriorate. This process tends to occur bilaterally (in both ears) and will compromise the message given to the brain to interpret. Once these hair cells begin to deteriorate they cannot regenerate and as such age-related hearing loss is irreversible. It does not mean however that it cannot be managed.
It is important to investigate the reason for your hearing loss, as it will directly impact the available means to manage the condition. Examples, or early indicators of age-related hearing loss include, poor speech discrimination, the perception that people ‘mumble’ due to the loss of high frequency sound cues and difficulty hearing in background noise.
The connection between diet and hearing loss prevention
There are many studies around the impact of foods on sensory decline. Many believe that while nutrition won’t prevent hearing loss, it can slow it down. The most efficient way to do this is to increase intake of foods rich in antioxidants, amino acids, minerals and vitamins.
Vitamins A, B, C, D and E – These Vitamins are plentiful in vegetables, fruit and fish. Vitamin B Complex alleviates pressure in the ear. B-2 vitamins provide a better flow of oxygen in the hearing cells and B-6 is responsible for the right level of fluid in the ears. Lack of Vitamins C and D can lead to growths in the middle ear. Vitamin E may help recover from sudden hearing loss. Together and when consumed as part of a healthy diet, Vitamins can improve the immune system, thereby reducing the risk of ear infections
Omega 3 – Found in fish, particularly trout, tuna, salmon and sardines, Omega 3 can strengthen blood vessels in the sensory system of the ears.
Magnesium – This mineral is thought to ease hearing sensitivity and reduce tinnitus (ringing in the ears). It is found in almonds, brown rice, leafy greens, artichokes, barley, Brazil nuts, beans, and pumpkin seeds.
Folic acid – Foods such as spinach, avocado, beans, broccoli, eggs, nuts and orange juice are rich in folic acids. Folic acid is an antioxidant that is very efficient against preventing damage to the nerve tissue in the inner ears.
Potassium – It is thought that potassium is essential to the functioning of the inner ear, the part of the ear where ‘hair cells’ reside (cochlea). As the body naturally ages, potassium levels drop which could affect hearing. Foods rich in high potassium are beans, dark leafy greens, potatoes, squash, yogurt, fish, avocados, mushrooms and bananas. Other important minerals are zinc, magnesium, copper and iodine.
Antioxidants – especially Resveratrol and Green Tea
What you eat, can ultimately impact how well you hear in later life.
Article by Joan McKechnie, BSc Hons Audiology & Speech Pathology. Joan works for Hampshire based HearingDirect.com. Joan is HCPC Registered (Health Care Professions Council in the UK).