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Have sleep apnea? You might have hearing loss, too

Contributed by , staff writer

If you've been diagnosed with sleep apnea, you may want to schedule a appointment to see your audiologist, too. A new study of nearly 14,000 individuals from the Hispanic Community Health Study/Study of Latinos found that sleep apnea may be a strong indication of hearing loss.                                    

Amit Chopra, MD of the Albany Medical Center in New York was lead author for the study. He said sleep apnea affects the vascular supply to the cochlea causing inflammation, while the loud snoring associated with sleep apnea may cause noise-induced hearing loss.

Study participants participated in in-home sleep apnea studies and on-site audiometric testing. Test results indicated hearing impairment was more prevalent among those who had a higher body mass index, snored and had sleep apnea. Sleep apnea was independently associated with a 31 percent increase in high frequency hearing loss, a 90 percent increase in low frequency hearing impairment and a 38 percent increase in both high and low frequency hearing impairment. The study was presented at the 2014 American Thoracic Society International Conference.

sleep apnea and hearing loss
New study shows there may be a connection 
between sleep apnea and hearing loss. 

What is sleep apnea

According to the American Sleep Association (ASA), approximately 12 million Americans have sleep apnea, a common disorder in which affected individuals experience one or more pauses in breathing or shallow breaths while they sleep. More than half of these individuals are overweight and most snore heavily. Symptoms include snoring and daytime sleepiness. Untreated sleep apnea can lead to a variety of other health issues, including high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, diabetes and obesity.

Obstructive sleep apnea, where the airway collapses or becomes obstructed, is the most common form of this condition. Central sleep apnea occurs when your brain doesn't send the right signals to your breathing muscles. While this condition can affect anyone, it is more common in individuals with certain  medical conditions, such as congestive heart failure, Hypothyroid Disease, Kidney failure, Parkinson's Disease and Alzheimer's. Certain medications may also cause this condition.

Why does sleep apnea affect hearing health?

The organs in the inner ear are dependent on a healthy supply of blood flow. Good circulation nourishes delicate hair cells in the cochlea, which are responsible for translating the noises our ears collect into electrical impulses that travel along the auditory nerve to the brain for interpretation into understandable sound. Because these hair cells do not regenerate, any damage to this part of the inner ear results in sensorineural hearing loss, the most common type of permanent hearing loss.

Hearing health professionals have known for some time that circulatory issues can cause hearing loss. Research indicates those with heart disease are more than 50 percent more likely to have some type of hearing impairment. According to the American Diabetes Association, patients with diabetes are twice as likely to have hearing loss as those who do not. Smokers are more likely to develop hearing loss because the habit depletes oxygen levels in the inner ear. Untreated high blood pressure can also contribute to hearing loss as well as tinnitus, which is also known as ringing in the ears.

Noise-induced hearing loss is a concern among sleep apnea sufferers because some individuals snore loudly enough to cause damage to their hearing as well as to the hearing of their spouse or partner. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) requires employers to provide hearing protection to employees working in environments where sound measures louder than 80 decibels during an eight hour period of time. Some snorers produce sounds louder than OSHA safety levels. Vibrations in the inner ear caused by snoring may also contribute to hearing loss.

Treatment

In addition to snoring and daytime sleepiness, symptoms of sleep apnea may include morning headaches, irritability, learning or memory problems, mood swings, dry throat upon waking in the morning, and frequent urination at night.

If you suspect you have sleep apnea, schedule an appointment with your physician. Treatment may include lifestyle changes such as weight loss, smoking cessation, use of a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine or oral breathing devices to wear at night, medicine to help you stay away during the day, and/or surgery to correct a blockage.

Any hearing loss associated with sleep apnea is likely sensorineural in nature and treatable with hearing aids. Your hearing healthcare professional can determine the type of hearing loss you have and recommend the appropriate treatment to suit your lifestyle. To find a qualified practioner or hearing center in your community, search Healthy Hearing's listing of hearing healthcare professionals.

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