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Is your heart hard of hearing?


February 2015

Gen Xers and baby boomers experiencing a hearing loss should no longer dismiss it as a casualty of the loud rock concerts of their youth. There are very real signs that link hearing loss to cardiovascular disease.

Thatís the theory of Dr. David R. Friedland, professor and vicechair of otolaryngology and communication sciences at the Medical College of Wisconsin, who has studied a correlation between cardiovascular and hearing loss for years. A healthy cardiovascular system ó a personís heart, arteries and veins ó has a positive effect on hearing. Conversely, inadequate blood flow and trauma to the blood vessels of the inner ear can contribute to hearing loss.

"The inner ear is so sensitive to blood flow that it is possible for cardiovascular problems to be detected here earlier than in other less sensitive parts of the body," he says.

In Friedlandís latest study, nearly 1,200 audiograms, or hearing tests, were studied for a suspected link. Only a quarter of those tested had hearing problems, but more than half of that number experienced coronary artery disease or cerebral vascular disease. Friedland calls this a "dramatic predisposition."

So are patients with low-frequency hearing loss definitely at risk for cardiovascular events?

Currently, Friedland says, there is not enough data to create a strict medical policy linking the two. But enough data exists to suggest that audiogram patterns correlate strongly with cerebrovascular and peripheral arterial disease and may represent a screening test for those at risk.

Bottom line, those experiencing a hearing loss should ask their doctor to be on the lookout for cardiovascular disease. This is especially true if the patient has a sedentary lifestyle, increased body mass index and a large waist circumference. And conversely, Friedland says, a hearing test should be part of any routine medical examination.

He is especially excited about recent study results because he says medicine has not been able to effectively predict cardiovascular disease in those younger than 65. "Here is a cost-effective, easy way to potentially ID people with cardiovascular disease, or developing (CVD), to pick it up earlier," he says.

In the meantime, an active lifestyle can improve cardiovascular health and increase blood flow to the ear. According to the American Journal of Medicine, increased physical activity can actually decrease the risk for hearing loss. Maintaining a healthy diet and keeping blood pressure within a healthy range are also recommended.

Friedland is continuing his research and is waiting for funding to study a much larger pool of patients in the southeast Wisconsin area. Until that study can begin, heíll continue looking for what he calls small associations and correlations to support the link between hearing loss and cardiovascular diseases, including heart disease and stroke, which cause 17.3 million deaths each year.


This story ran in the February 2015 issue of: