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Hearing Loss New Worry for Diabetics?

Experts disagree on new study of hearing problems in diabetics

THURSDAY, May 24, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- From head to toe, diabetes spells trouble. Sufferers can lose their sight, their feet and, in many cases, their lives.

Now, new research offers evidence that their hearing may also be in danger.

But the seriousness of the problem isn't totally clear. One diabetes expert says hearing loss isn't considered a major effect of the disease, while two ear specialists say the two conditions do appear to be related.

"There have been case reports since the 19th century of diabetics with hearing loss," says Dr. Hinrich Staecker, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland and co-author of a new study on the subject.

Suspicions about the possible connection convinced University of Maryland researchers to look at the records of 74,000 Veterans Administration patients in that state. Of the diabetics in the study, 13.1 percent suffered from hearing loss, compared to 10.3 percent of patients without diabetes. According to Staecker, the difference is statistically meaningful, even though it appears small.

Many of the diabetics do not seem to be controlling their disease well, Staecker says. "The message is that with worsening control of your diabetes and more advanced disease, your hearing gets worse."

The results of Staecker's study were released at a meeting earlier this month of the American Otological Society.

The next step for the researchers will be to figure out exactly what diabetes does to the ear, he says. That won't be easy.

"Ear research is difficult because the inner ear is imbedded in the hardest bone in the body," Staecker says. "The tissue itself is very hard to get hold of. It takes over a year to process the temporal bone for pathology studies."

One possible explanation for the link is that diabetes may harm the nerves in the ear, Staecker says. Another possibility is that the disease damages the ear's tiny blood vessels.

Dr. James Bush, an ear, nose and throat specialist at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla in San Diego, notes, "Diabetes affects the kidneys and the retina and the ear -- all the places that depend on blood supply from a small source."

Should diabetics start worrying about their hearing? It's too early to say, responds Dr. Richard Sherwin, president of the American Diabetes Association.

The University of Maryland research is "intriguing and interesting" but not conclusive, Sherwin says. He points out that the rate of hearing loss in diabetics in the study was only slightly above that in other patients.

That "small difference" could be caused by a variety of factors, perhaps even the complications of diabetes, not the disease itself, he says. Other factors, like alcoholism, could also be at play, he adds.

But Sherwin says it makes sense that diabetes could affect hearing. "It wouldn't shock me," he says. "There is nerve damage in people with diabetes, and they do have diseases of small blood vessels."

Dr. Edgar Ling, an ear, nose and throat specialist who, like Bush, works at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla in San Diego, says there's nothing diabetics can do to prevent potential hearing loss other than to control their blood sugar.

"I can't fix diabetes," he says. "[Prevention] of hearing loss requires aggressive control of diabetes over the entire lifetime."

What To Do

If you're diabetic, you may wish to follow Staecker's advice and get your hearing checked.

Read about hearing loss among older people at the Web site of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

Also, check out this diabetes fact sheet from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

You also might want to read previous HealthDay articles on diabetes, and others on hearing.

SOURCES: Interviews with Hinrich Staecker, M.D., Ph.D., University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore; Robert Sherwin, M.D., president, American Diabetes Association, and professor of medicine, Yale University Medical School, New Haven, Conn.; James Bush, M.D., and Edgar Ling, M.D., both at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla, San Diego, Calif.
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