We tend to think of the different systems, organs, and functions of the body in isolation. One of the benefits of this approach is the ability to observe and monitor changes in one specific part of the body, including the effects of treatments or medicines. Yet, no single aspect of the body or mind can be completely separated from the others. Like a domino rally, one change in the body can lead to a ripple effect in other aspects of health and wellbeing. The ears are no exception to this process, and hearing is part of the interdependent web of effects that connect one body system to the next.
With this kind of “network thinking” in mind, we can better understand the connection between hearing loss and cardiovascular disease. If you look at the raw statistics, a connection is evident. Those who have untreated hearing loss have higher rates of cardiovascular disease than their counterparts who don’t have hearing loss, even when you control for other demographic factors. However, it’s not as simple as one condition causing the other. To better understand this connection, we need to look at the relationship between hearing and the cardiovascular system.
The Cardiovascular System and Hearing
The general category of pathologies called “cardiovascular disease” includes anything related to the heart and blood vessels. Some of the common maladies that fall under the umbrella of cardiovascular disease are heart attack, arrhythmia, and stroke. How could such serious health conditions be connected to hearing loss? One of the important features of cardiovascular disease is that the blood vessels are constricted, limiting the flow of oxygenated blood to other parts of the body.
When the heart is unable to pump nutrients to other parts of the body, it can be deprived of what they need to function. The fragile features of the inner ear can be damaged through this deprivation, causing hearing loss, tinnitus, or other dysfunctions. Specifically, the tiny, hairlike organelles of the inner ear called stereocilia require a steady flow of oxygen and nutrients to be able to do their work. They detect the slightest differences in pressure coming from soundwaves, and that sensitivity also makes them likely to become damaged. When something is limiting the flow of oxygen to the stereocilia, they can cease to work as they are intended. For this reason, some experts even consider hearing loss to be an early warning sign of a cardiovascular event.
Heart and Hearing Health
What can you do to promote your heart health, indirectly also promoting your hearing health? There are a few classic approaches to strengthening the cardiovascular system. It won’t come as a surprise that nutrition has a lot to do with the health of your heart and blood vessels. When you eat foods that are heavy in saturated fats, they can lead to a buildup of cholesterol on the walls of the blood vessels, making the heart’s job much more difficult. However, eating a diet that limits saturated fats and sugars has been shown to have a good effect on the cardiovascular system.
For instance, the Mediterranean Diet and Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) both emphasize eating lots of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. The Mediterranean Diet encourages us to use olive oil rather than animal fats and even allows drinking red wine in moderation.
What heart-healthy lifestyle would be complete without an exercise regimen? Building the strength of the heart through cardiovascular exercise is a great way to pump oxygenated blood throughout the body, including the ears. When you think of exercise, you might immediately think about a trip to the gym, but your workout can be integrated into your lifestyle, as well. When you go for a walk with a friend or decide to take the stairs of a building rather than the elevator, you’re building your heart’s strength in ways that don’t even require running shoes.
These healthy habits can lead to a wide range of positive health outcomes, and reducing the likelihood of hearing loss is certainly one of them. Make your heart health a priority, and you will be doing work to protect your hearing at the same time.