The link between iron deficiency anemia and hearing loss
A growing body of evidence is indicating that anemia and hearing loss are linked—particularly for a common type of anemia that causes low iron levels.
In one study, people with iron-deficiency anemia (IDA) were twice as likely to have hearing loss than those without the blood disorder. To find the link, researchers with Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine analyzed the medical records of 305,339 adults between the ages of 21 and 90.
“An association exists between IDA and hearing loss,” the authors of the study wrote. “The next steps are to better understand this correlation and whether promptly diagnosing and treating IDA may positively affect the overall health status of adults with hearing loss.”
The study, published in 2017, was not designed to prove that iron-deficiency anemia causes hearing loss, only that there was a relationship between the two. Still, older studies have found similar relationships—one study from 2002 found a link between iron-rich diets and better hearing at high frequencies.
Why is iron-deficiency anemia linked to hearing loss?
Iron helps blood cells carry oxygen from the lungs to the body. Your inner ears require an oxygen-rich, healthy blood supply to function normally.
"Although the role of iron in the inner ear has not been clearly established, blood supply to this area is highly sensitive to ischemic damage," the researchers noted. Ischemia means a lack of blood supply.
In the inner ear, oxygen is necessary for the health of sensory hair cells involved in translating sound into electrical impulses. A lack of oxygen can damage these sensory hair cells or cause them to die, affecting the manner in which they are able to perform the translation and transmit the impulses to the brain for interpretation. This also can lead to tinnitus, or ringing in the ears.
Who gets iron-deficiency anemia?
Most people with this type of anemia have no symptoms, but chronically low iron can cause fatigue or tiredness, shortness of breath, or chest pain, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
Anyone can develop iron-deficiency anemia, although the condition is more common in women during childbearing years because of blood lost during menstruation. Changes in the blood during pregnancy can also cause anemia. In older adults, blood loss is a common cause, usually from problems with the gastrointestinal system.
Other types of anemia are hereditary, such as sickle cell anemia, or are caused by chronic disease, such as kidney disease or following chemotherapy. (Sickle cell anemia can cause hearing loss in adults, but iron supplements are not recommended for it, and can in fact be harmful.)
For most people who are otherwise healthy, eating a balanced diet provides the body with an adequate supply of iron. Foods rich in iron include red meat, pork and poultry, seafood, beans, peas, dark leafy vegetables, dried fruit and iron-fortified cereals and pasta.
If you're concerned, get your hearing checked
And although this type of anemia is very treatable, don’t stock up on iron supplements just yet to improve your hearing. The study authors emphasize further research is needed to understand the link iron plays in protecting our sense of hearing before supplementation can be used as a treatment plan for hearing loss and auditory problems. If you think you might have this type of anemia, seek out advice from your doctor.
Also, if you aren’t hearing as well as you used to, regardless of the cause, make an appointment to have your hearing tested by a hearing healthcare professional as soon as possible. Healthy Hearing’s directory can help you find a qualified practitioner in your community.