Hearing the Latest with Healthy Aging Ears

2010-03-07 | |
Last updated: 2010-03-07
preventing hearing loss with aging

As we age, it is widely understood that our bodies will slow down and that various parts of our systems will operate less effectively than they once did. In particular, poor hearing in older people is quite frequent and most of us either know someone older whose hearing just isn’t what it used to be or are ourselves currently experiencing poor hearing first hand. This is hardly surprising given that hearing loss is one of the four most common chronic conditions of the elderly.

Though hearing loss does commonly occur with age, this observation does not directly help the lives of those who suffer from the condition. When not addressed, age-related hearing loss can lead to social isolation and depression. At the same time, as strange as it might seem, untreated hearing loss can also lead to poorer memory. Researchers at Brandeis University observed that this occurred because people spent so much effort trying to understand what was being said that the effort reduced their ability to remember the words that were actually said.

As the most common sensory disorder associated with aging, hearing loss or Presbycusis affects more than 14 million people in the US over age 65. In the UK, the number of people over the age of 60 affected is roughly 6.4 million. In Australia, 3 out of every 4 people over the age of 70 are affected by hearing loss. Clearly, loss of hearing affects a considerable portion of the aging population.

Up until very recently, the knowledge of why hearing degenerates with age was not at all understood. However, in the last decade, research has gained a more significant understanding of the condition. One key cause of age-related hearing loss is thought to be due to something called “oxidative stress”. In other words, accumulated exposure to the unintended byproducts of normal chemical reactions in our cells causes damage to our cells.

Specifically, researchers at the University of Florida found that the cell power generators, the mitochondria, started to leak destructive proteins into the rest of the cell over time. The leaks were caused by accumulation of too much protein of another type. Something like the acid from a leaking battery, the leaked proteins were found to damage the hair and nerve cells resulting in hearing loss.

When these same researchers then provided dietary antioxidants to the mice, they found that those fed the antioxidants as they aged retained their hearing much longer.

That said, the common vitamin antioxidants, vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta carotene are not the ones that prevent hearing loss. Research published by the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery Foundation found that folate was best at preserving hearing. In their study, those over 60 taking folate as a supplement had a 20% lower chance of developing hearing loss than those who did not.

Also important based on research from a decade ago is vitamin B-12. In that research, the results showed that women with hearing loss had 48% less vitamin B-12 in their blood than those with normal hearing.

Folate is naturally found in vegetables such as spinach, asparagus, kale, beans, peas, fortified cereal products and sunflower seeds to name a few sources. Vitamin B-12 is found in meat, fish, eggs and dairy products. However, as we age, getting enough of these materials is often easier through the use of supplements.

Furthering the evidence that oxidative stress is part of the cause of hearing loss due to aging, researchers at the University of Sydney found that smokers had a more than 40% increased risk of age-related hearing loss over nonsmokers. Smoking causes large amounts of free radicals to enter the system that results in “oxidative stress” to our tissues.

Although science now better understands the aging of the ear itself and offers some suggestions for prevention of damage and hearing loss in aging ears, it is also important to remember that other factors affect hearing. The wiring and the brain are also aging at the same time so some of the loss of hearing acuity is likely also the result of this aging.

In any case, the battle to make aging slower and easier is a battle that will be fought with many more years of scientific research. The best that we can all do is take advantage of new knowledge as it becomes available. The reality is that there is already plenty of information out there that can make our lives longer and more enjoyable.

In a subsequent article, other research into preserving hearing will be presented. If you are suffering from hearing loss for any reason, please share your thoughts in the forums.

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