Do you assume hearing problems are an unavoidable part of the ageing process, like grey hair, free bus fares and Richard Madeley? Perhaps you see it as a genetic disposition, a curse passed down from Grandpa George and Great Aunt Maud?
Well, what if I told you your assumptions were wrong? That hearing loss is at least partly preventable and can be actively reduced by the choices you make every day? In this article, I’ll explain why hearing loss isn’t something that just happens to us all – and how you can take meaningful steps to prevent it.
The root cause of hearing loss
If you want to avoid hearing loss, it helps to have a basic grasp of how your sense of hearing works. So let’s start with a whistle-stop tour of your ear.
Imagine a sound wave entering your ear. As it travels down your ear canal, it passes through a maze of tunnels and causes millions of tiny hairs to vibrate. This triggers messages to be sent from your ear to your brain, which you experience as sound.
Over the course of a lifetime, these delicate hairs can become damaged and, unlike many parts of our body, they have no way of regenerating. That’s why hearing tends to fade slowly with age. Because one by one, those tiny hairs in your ear stop working as they’re supposed to.
What causes this damage? Well, it could be something like an ear infection or exposure to loud noises, but as often as not it’s simply a case of poor blood circulation – which means not enough oxygen gets to your ear.
Lifestyle choices that prevent hearing loss
OK, biology lesson over. Now you know what can go wrong in your ear, it’s easier to pinpoint lifestyle choices which could result in premature hearing problems and others which will keep your hearing clearer and more detailed for many years to come.
Food and drink
“Yes, the quantity and quality of food you eat does appear to impact hearing.” Dr Douglas Beck
In 2014, respected audiologist Dr Douglas Beck wrote an opinion piece for the American Academy of Audiology about the relationship between diet and hearing. He concluded that obesity was almost certainly a direct cause of hearing issues. Since excess body weight makes it harder for your heart to pump blood to all parts of the body, it’s easy to see how this reduces oxygen flow and causes damage to hair cells in the ear.
As well as keeping our weight in check, nutritionists have also found some foods have a positive impact on hearing health:
- Folic acid has been shown to slow down hearing loss and improve circulation. This means increasing your intake of citrus fruit, asparagus and leafy green vegetables like spinach could help prevent hearing difficulties in later life.
- Magnesium is another nutrient found in leafy green vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds which is good for your hearing. Scientists have discovered that it can protect your ears from noise-related hearing loss and help blood vessels stay open wide, so they can transport more oxygen.
- Potassium-rich foods such as bananas, peas, mushrooms and sweet potatoes are all good for your hearing too. Potassium helps to regulate the amount of fluid in your ears, keeping them healthy. This is especially important as you get older when the amount of fluid your ears produce typically gets lower and lower.
- Zinc could also help to look after your ears by helping your body to ward off colds and avoid nasty ear infections. This means food such as meat, shellfish, nuts and seeds can all help you and your ears stay healthy.
The risks of excessive drinking are widely publicised, but what’s less well known is that alcohol can cause lasting damage to your ears. High levels of alcohol in the bloodstream essentially create a toxic environment which can directly damage the delicate hairs responsible for hearing.
The irony here is that many people use alcohol as a social lubricant. But nothing makes social interactions harder than hearing trouble. So avoiding excess drinking now could actually lead to a much richer social life in later years.
We’ve all had periods in our life where a good night’s sleep simply isn’t easy to come by. Perhaps young children, stress or noise have kept us awake through the small hours. While a few restless nights can leave us feeling groggy, disoriented and short-tempered, it’s when the sleeplessness continues that the effects become more serious. Blood pressure increases, as do the risks of depression, stroke and diabetes.
While our ears may not be the first thing we think about in this situation, they aren’t immune to a lack of sleep. As the body’s blood circulation becomes poorer, oxygen flow to the ears reduces and those delicate hairs become irreparably damaged.
It’s easy to feel that our time is under pressure from all directions, and it can be tempting to prioritise other things over sleep. Especially when our high streets are full of cafés selling caffeinated and sugary pick-me-ups. But in terms of long-term hearing health, there really is no substitute for a proper night’s sleep.
Let’s not fool ourselves here. If the risk of cancer and heart disease doesn’t turn you off cigarettes, it’s unlikely hearing loss will. But it would be wrong to write an article about lifestyle choices which affect hearing health and ignore smoking. Because the science is pretty damning.
A number of studies have shown that nicotine and carbon monoxide deplete oxygen levels and constrict blood vessels all over your body, including those in your inner ear, causing long-lasting damage to your sense of hearing.
Smoking can also cause tinnitus, interfere with the signals between the ear and the brain, and could make you more susceptible to noise-related hearing trouble.
This might not be as hard hitting as a message like ‘smoking kills’ but if you’re someone who really values your sense of hearing – a musician or someone who loves going to the theatre perhaps – then spare a thought for your hearing next time you light up.
Time to make some changes?
We’re not here to tell you to eat your greens, or don’t have that cigarette when you are stressed; nor are we going to wrap your knuckles for having a glass of Malbec with your dinner. Giving into temptation every now and then isn’t unhealthy. It’s human nature.
But if ‘every now and then’ is actually closer to ‘every opportunity’ and moderation quickly becomes excess, then you really are risking your long-term hearing health for short-term gratification.
As it’s the season of Lent, there’s a good chance you’ve already given up an unhealthy vice. So here’s a suggestion: rather than treating Easter as a chance to pick up where you left off, why not continue your journey forward and take another step towards a lifestyle which is positive for your hearing health?
After all, who doesn’t want to enjoy a world filled with music, conversation and detailed hearing for as long as humanly possible?
About Sevenoaks Hearing
At Sevenoaks Hearing, we provide a bespoke hearing service, using state-of-the-art technology to provide an accurate diagnosis and an effective solution. As we are independent of any manufacturer, we can also provide the best solution for your lifestyle. Find out about our hearing assessments and other treatment services.
Written by Matt Canon, Lead Audiologist at Sevenoaks Hearing. Visit our independent hearing centres in Sevenoaks, Banstead and East Grinstead or book an appointment now.