This article was originally featured in Brigham Health Hub.
Sharon Curhan, MD, ScM, physician and epidemiologist in the Channing Division of Network Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH)
Gary C. Curhan, MD, SCD, nephrologist in the Division of Renal Medicine at Brigham and Women’s (BWH)
You may assume hearing loss is an unavoidable part of the aging process. But new research suggests that a healthy diet, along with other health and lifestyle modifications, may reduce the risk of acquired hearing loss.
Using questionnaire responses from roughly 71,000 women, researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) found that those who consumed an overall healthy diet had a lower risk of hearing loss.
The women, who participated in the Nurses’ Health Study II and were followed for more than 20 years, were asked every four years about their eating habits over the past year, as well as whether they had developed a moderate or severe hearing problem.
Women whose diets most closely resembled the Alternate Mediterranean diet (AMED) or Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) dietary patterns (known to be associated with good health) had an approximately 30 percent lower risk of moderate or worse hearing loss, compared with women whose diets least resembled these dietary patterns.
The AMED diet includes extra virgin olive oil, whole and minimally processed grains, legumes, vegetables (except potatoes), fruits, nuts, fish and moderate intake of wine or alcohol. The DASH diet is high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, lean meats, fish, poultry and low- or non-fat dairy, and low in sodium, sweets and saturated fats.
Findings in a subgroup for whom detailed hearing-related information was collected suggest the reduced risk may be even greater than 30 percent, and may also pertain to the Alternative Healthy Eating Index-2010 (AHEI-2010), a measure of diet quality that has common components with AMED and DASH.
“Eating well contributes to overall good health, and it may also be helpful in reducing the risk of hearing loss,” said Sharon Curhan, MD, ScM, a physician and epidemiologist in the Channing Division of Network Medicine at BWH who led the study, which appeared in the Journal of Nutrition.
Healthy choices may help slow progression of hearing loss
Hearing loss affects nearly 48 million adults in the United States, including one in three adults age 60 years or more and nearly half of people ages 75 to 85 years old. Acquired hearing loss involves a complex interaction of factors that can include age, genetics, noise exposure, some medical conditions and certain medications, as well as diet and lifestyle factors.
Whether acquired hearing loss can be slowed has been the focus of much research by Dr. Curhan and her colleagues, including her husband Gary C. Curhan, MD, ScD. Their interest in the topic was spurred after their oldest child was diagnosed with hearing loss soon after birth. In 2011, they co-founded the Conservation of Hearing Study (CHEARS) and have since co-authored more than 20 papers highlighting environmental and lifestyle risk factors for hearing loss and tinnitus.
The research team focuses on identifying contributors to hearing loss that can be modified through behavior, such as diet and other factors that may help reduce the risk. Some of their prior studies, based on analyzing large databases of questionnaires, have shown:
- Frequent use (two or more days per week) of two popular pain medications—ibuprofen, which belongs to a class of drugs called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), or acetaminophen—was associated with an increased risk of hearing loss. The more often a woman took either of these medications, the higher her risk for hearing loss. This was especially true in women younger than 50 years old who took ibuprofen six or more days per week. Regular aspirin use in typical doses was not associated with hearing loss.
- Men showed similar associations between regular use of over-the-counter analgesics and risk of hearing loss. Regular use of NSAIDs, acetaminophen or aspirin were all associated with higher risk of hearing loss in men.
- A higher body mass index (BMI) and larger waist circumference are each associated with higher risk of hearing loss in women, particularly when the extra weight is in the belly. The same study found that women who were more physically active—including simply walking—had a lower risk of hearing loss than women who were less physically active.
- Consuming two or more servings of fish per week was associated with lower risk of hearing loss.
“Findings from our research illustrate that there may be things that we can change in our diet and lifestyle to prevent hearing loss or delay its progression,” said Curhan. “The benefits of a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, staying physically active, not smoking, and limiting the use of over-the-counter analgesics have been demonstrated for numerous positive health outcomes. Eating a healthy diet and following these healthy lifestyle recommendations may also be helpful in reducing the risk of hearing loss.”