A new study conducted by Dr. Amit Chopra, M.D. of the Albany Medical Center in New York has revealed a possible link between suffering from sleep apnea and hearing loss. The research, which was presented at a recent conference of the American Thoracic Society, determined that out of nearly 14,000 participants from the Hispanic Community Health Study/Study of Latinos, at least ten percent exhibited sleep apnea, and of those nearly one third had an increased risk of high frequency hearing loss and a 90 percent increased risk of low frequency hearing loss. There was a 38 percent increased risk of combined hearing loss in people with sleep apnea. The study did control for other potential causes of hearing loss, as well as for age and gender.
The study involved having all of the participants participate in in-home sleep apnea studies as well as audiometric hearing tests. Sleep apnea levels were based on an average number of apnea events of fifteen or more per hour. The testing did show that the hearing impairment was more common among those of Cuban and Puerto Rican descent, as well as those with a higher body mass index (BMI).
According to Dr. Chopra, “The mechanisms underlying this relationship merit further exploration. Potential pathways linking sleep apnea and hearing impairment may include adverse effects of sleep apnea on vascular supply to the cochlea via inflammation and vascular remodeling or noise trauma from snoring.” Those who suffer from sleep apnea are known to snore explosively. It is part of the mechanism of the condition, in which the tissues of the throat relax and close off the airway, causing the brain to awaken the body in a panic of gasping for air. This can happen several hundred times per night.
Sleep apnea has been linked to a number of other serious medical conditions, and Chopra pointed out that those who have been diagnosed with the condition “are at an increased risk for a number of comorbidities, including heart disease and diabetes.” It is not yet known whether undergoing treatment for obstructive sleep apnea, such as the use of a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine or any of a number of oral devices that are currently available, might have a positive impact on the loss of hearing, as very few participants in the study were receiving any type of treatment.
The study’s results point to what sleep researchers have been saying all along – that sleep apnea does not stand alone, but works to create damage throughout the body’s systems. According to Dr. Neomi Shah, an associate director of the pulmonary sleep lab at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, “Sleep apnea is more of a systemic and chronic disease than just something that happens when you’re sleeping. It probably affects multiple different organs, so I would probably urge we start thinking about sleep apnea as more like a chronic disease with vascular and inflammatory issues.”