Is Your Ear a Window Into Your Heart?


At the age of 60, Michael had always considered himself to have perfect hearing. The family often joked that he could hear a whisper from the other room. So, you can imagine his shock when he developed a sudden hearing loss last month.

When he came to see me, we talked a few minutes about what he did for a living and how he felt about his overall health. He hadn’t seen a doctor in a few years since his company dropped their health insurance. He shared that he’d noticed he was feeling out of breath and chest tightness at times, especially after taking the stairs where he lived.

He joked that it was just part of getting older. But I suspected it might be something more.

I shared with him the link between heart health and hearing, and I’d like to share it here, too.

Heart Health and Hearing

In a study of 5000 people, researchers found a significant link between heart health and hearing loss. The link was so strong that they called it a “strong determinant.”

That means that if a person has heart disease, they can be fairly sure they’ll develop hearing loss.

Why might heart disease lead to hearing loss?

The inner ear has millions of tiny hairs that pick up sound. The way they move help carry sound to your brain, and your brain interprets the message. But these aren’t like the hairs on your skin. When they die, you don’t get more of them.

Heart disease reduces the blood flow to various parts of your body, including your inner ear. Blood carries the oxygen and nutrients cells need to stay alive. If you cut it off, even for a short time, these sensitive hairs die. 

Many researchers believe that a hearing problem could be one of the first signs your heart and vessels aren’t healthy. For that reason, even a little hearing trouble should never be ignored.

But here is the good news. Another study out of Miami found when older adults maintain physical fitness, they have less chance of developing hearing loss.

Now, don’t get me wrong. We can’t reverse hearing loss with exercise because the tiny hairs are already gone. But you may be able to prevent and slow it by exercising and seeing a cardiologist to check on your heart health.

How common are heart health and hearing challenges in Shelby County?

192 people for every 100,000 people living in Shelby County die of heart disease each year. That’s around 14% greater than the national average. What’s more, around 5% of Shelby Co. residents over 65 will be hospitalized for heart disease in any given year. In related news, around 15.3% of Tennesseans over 18 have hearing loss. That’s slightly higher than the national average of 13%. So here in Memphis, that study appears to be holding up in real life.

Getting your hearing checked

When Michael came to see me, I gave him a hearing test, and he chose to get hearing aids. But based on what he was telling me, I also encouraged him to make an appointment with a cardiologist.

If you think you might have heart disease, please speak with your doctor. And if you’re losing you’re hearing, please schedule an appointment so we can talk about how to hear your best.