BOSTON — Hearing loss in old age can be one of the most frustrating aspects of entering our golden years. A new study, however, reveals a simple strategy that may effectively reduce one’s risk of suffering a decline in hearing ability as the years go on: eating well!
Researchers from Brigham And Women’s Hospital say that women who closely followed healthy diets, such as the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet or the Alternate Mediterranean diet (AMED), were much less likely to suffer from hearing loss.
“A common perception is that hearing loss is an inevitable part of the aging process. However, our research focuses on identifying potentially modifiable risk factors — that is, things that we can change in our diet and lifestyle to prevent hearing loss or delay its progression,” says lead author Sharon Curhan, MD, a physician and epidemiologist in the Brigham’s Channing Division of Network Medicine, in a release. “The benefits of adherence to healthful dietary patterns have been associated with numerous positive health outcomes and eating a healthy diet may also help reduce the risk of hearing loss.”
Prior research had already indicated that certain foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and seafood, appeared to lower the risk of self-reported hearing loss in old age. But, researchers wanted to look into the matter more closely than ever before by looking at the effect of overall dietary patterns on hearing quality over time.
To come to their conclusions, the study’s authors established 19 testing locations all over the United States and had licensed audiologists measure changes in participating women’s hearing abilities over the course of three years. Specifically, the audiologists looked for fluctuations in the participants’ pure-tone hearing thresholds, or the absolute lowest pitch volume they were capable of hearing.
Audiologists played participants tones of different frequencies (0.5, 1 and 2 kHz as low-frequencies, 3 kHz and 4 kHz as mid-frequencies, and 6 kHz and 8 kHz as higher frequencies) at different “loudness” levels. Participants were then asked to indicate at what point they could barely hear anything at all.
Then, using over 20 years of dietary information that had been collected on the participants, the research team looked to see how closely the women’s diets resembled healthy diets.
They discovered that women who closely followed a healthy diet had an almost 30% lower chance of experiencing a decline in their mid-frequency hearing sensitivity. Regarding higher frequencies, women with healthy diets had a 25% lower risk.
“The association between diet and hearing sensitivity decline encompassed frequencies that are critical for speech understanding,” Curhan explains. “We were surprised that so many women demonstrated hearing decline over such a relatively short period of time. The mean age of the women in our study was 59 years; most of our participants were in their 50s and early 60s. This is a younger age than when many people think about having their hearing checked. After only three years, 19 percent had hearing loss in the low frequencies, 38 percent had hearing loss in the mid-frequencies, and almost half had hearing loss in the higher frequencies. Despite this considerable worsening in their hearing sensitivities, hearing loss among many of these participants would not typically be detected or addressed.”
In the future, the research team would like conduct further research with a larger and more diverse population sample. This study consisted largely of only middle-aged, white women, so future studies should include more age groups, genders, and ethnicities.
The study is published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.