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Have Trouble Hearing?

July 9, 2012 (Updated: August 4, 2021)
Lily Moran

If you know someone with hearing loss, you know how difficult life can be. Misunderstanding directions, constantly asking people to repeat themselves, avoiding noisy restaurants and social events because it’s too difficult to hear — these are just a few of the issues created by hearing difficulties.

I am not a hearing specialist or otolaryngologist, but I have spent enough time with patients, friends, and relatives with difficulty hearing to know that this is one of those invisible health problems that has a tremendous impact on people’s lives.

Thanks to developments in technology, some wonderful new hearing aids are now available. They are less bulky and obvious, and they perform better than previous versions. But hearing aids are expensive, and the costs are rarely covered by insurance, including Medicare.

Fortunately, you can take steps to prevent hearing loss and related problems, as my patient Anthony discovered.

Hearing Loss: A Problem for Young and Old Alike

Hearing loss already affects roughly one-third of all individuals over the age of 65. And as the Baby Boomers age, hearing problems are going to become even more common. Meanwhile, members of Generation Earbud are already at increased risk for losing their hearing, thanks to their love for all things electronic. From cell phones and music players to headphones and video games, the ears of our children and grandchildren are experiencing many of these sounds as no one ever has — directly in the ear canal with no protection of any kind. It could be decades before we know how these devices have affected their hearing. But we already know that hearing loss in youngsters between the ages of 5 and 19 is on the rise, with nearly 20 percent now experiencing difficulties hearing.

Age, Noise, and Drugs: Your Ears’ Worst Enemies

Hearing loss is usually associated with advancing years, and for a good reason. The older the individual, the more likely he or she is experiencing hearing difficulties. Tiny hair-like cells in the ear, one of the most essential elements in the complicated process of hearing, help the brain identify specific sounds. These delicate cells can be damaged by free radicals. These are the same culprits involved in the process that creates wrinkles, except that we can’t see the harm being done to our inner ears. So in other words, the majority of hearing loss is simply aging of the ears.

Save Your Tiny Hair Cells!

The tiny hair cells in your ears are vulnerable to damage from many sources, including:

  • Free radicals that play a role in overall aging
  • Noise
  • Certain drugs
  • Circulatory problems
  • Some diseases
  • Infections
  • Genetics
  • Too few antioxidants

Hair cells can recover from brief exposure to damaging elements. But prolonged or repeated assaults — from a diet deficient in antioxidants and other nutrients (e.g., omega-3 fatty acids) to spending 8 hours a day in a noisy environment — can damage them permanently.

The second most common cause of hearing problems is noise. People who work in professions that constantly expose them to uncomfortable levels of noise are highly vulnerable to hearing loss. Musicians and workers in the fields of construction, manufacturing, transportation, and agriculture are particularly at risk. Experts at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders estimate that 10 million Americans have suffered irreversible hearing damage from noise, while another 30 million are exposed to dangerous noise levels each day. And these figures are considered conservative.

Finally, millions of individuals are experiencing hearing loss and/or problems like tinnitus (ringing or buzzing in the ears) from over-the-counter and prescription medication. Common aspirin, for example, is just one of many medicines that are ototoxic, or damaging to hearing. There are literally hundreds of ototoxic drugs, including certain antidepressants and antianxiety drugs. Unfortunately, physicians rarely mention the possibility of hearing loss when prescribing these drugs. And since it can take months for a hearing problem to become noticeable, few people connect it with a drug they began taking months ago.

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Antioxidants: Hearing Help in a Pill

Combating both age-related and noise-induced hearing loss requires the same approach — antioxidants. Studies repeatedly show that these nutrients protect us against the cell-damaging rogue molecules known as free radicals. According to the latest research, I recommend the following five supplements:

Alpha-lipoic acid (ALA): Experts consider ALA to be one of the most effective naturally occurring antioxidants available, although ALA does not have the high profile of some supplements. Among its long list of benefits: the ability to recycle vitamins C and E, allowing them to remain in the body longer. But when combined with acetyl-l-carnitine (ALC; see below), ALA really shines as an antiaging nutrient with a special affinity for ears. I recommend 100 to 750 mg of ALA daily, with 500 to 3,000 mg of ALC for maximum effect.

Acetyl-l-carnitine (ALC): Although our bodies produce ALC, production slows as we age. Supplementing with ALC benefits the ears, especially when combined with ALA (above). The synergy between these two nutrients amplifies the protection they afford the ear’s delicate hair cells. Start with 500 mg of ALC daily. If you need more, you can safely take up to 3,000 mg per day. You may want to take these nutrients in the morning and early afternoon because they can be quite energizing and may keep you awake at night.

Magnesium: Studies repeatedly show that magnesium effectively counteracts noise-induced hearing loss. In addition, it is essential for good circulation, managing blood pressure, and keeping the heart healthy. Magnesium helps prevent artery spasms that cause chest pains known as angina. It also wards off arrhythmia by aiding communication between the nerves that make the heart beat and the heart muscle itself. I recommend 200 mg twice daily. At least one study reported relief from tinnitus with 532 mg per day.

Melatonin: Regular readers know I’m a big fan of melatonin. This powerhouse antioxidant is well known for helping correct sleep disorders, like trouble falling or staying asleep. But it can also help individuals with hearing issues. One recent study found that melatonin protects against the type of hearing damage caused by certain antibiotics. Another study noted that older individuals (60-plus) with age-related hearing difficulties were likely to have low levels of melatonin. Since this type of ear damage is caused by free radicals, it makes sense that people with hearing loss would be deficient in a protective antioxidant like melatonin.

Omega-3 fatty acids: Only recently have researchers begun looking into connections between the good fats, known as omega-3 fatty acids, and hearing. The first clinical trial to focus on the issue found that the lower an individual’s levels of omega-3s, the greater the likelihood of age-related hearing loss. Similar findings came from a second study examining a group of nearly 3,000 people age 50 and above. Eating fatty, cold-water fish (salmon, herring, anchovies) twice a week is one way to get sufficient omega-3s, but you might also be consuming a hefty dose of toxins from polluted water. That’s why I recommend my patients take Calamarine, a purified, stable omega-3 that I prefer over fish oil. Take 1,000 mg twice daily.

Keep in mind, though, that these five supplements are most effective when supported by the following five elements I consider essential for good health:

  • A diet rich in vegetables, fruit, and small amounts of lean protein
  • Plenty of deep, restorative sleep
  • Fresh, filtered water
  • Appropriate supplements
  • Regular, moderate exercise

Ear Protection: A Sound Solution to Noise

Finally, if you live or work in a noisy environment and want to maintain your hearing, ear protection is an absolute must. For that, you’ll need either earplugs or earmuffs. Earplugs are tested for effectiveness, and the resulting Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) is shown on the package. Plugs with a high NRR number provide more protection than those with a low NRR.

Compared with earmuffs and earplugs of a decade ago, today’s versions are much improved. Some even combine noise reduction with speech amplification, so you can have a conversation while protecting your hearing. I recommend visiting a sporting goods or similar kind of store to see which type of ear protection feels and works best for you. If you’d like to double your protection, wear earplugs and earmuffs at the same time.

Just one more thing: If you’re frequently bothered by environmental noise — loud neighbors, leaf blowers, music, construction sounds, or traffic — try noise-canceling headphones. I wear these on airplanes to minimize cabin noise levels. Unwanted noise can be very stressful. And although it doesn’t necessarily harm hearing, it has been associated with other health complications. So do yourself a favor — reduce the noise in your life and take some time to enjoy the sounds of silence whenever possible.

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