That's the bottom line of research presented today at the American Heart Association's Asia Pacific Scientific Forum in Honolulu, where University of Wisconsin researchers reported a connection between cardiovascular disease and reduced functioning of the inner ear in older adults. The link was most pronounced in women who had suffered heart attacks.
In the study, the researchers tested the functioning of the cochlea -- the spiral-shaped organ in the inner ear that contains the hair cells crucial for hearing -- in 1,600 men and women between the ages of 52 and 97.Overall, those who had a self-reported history of cardiovascular disease were 54 percent more likely to have impaired cochlear function than those who were heart-healthy. And those who had heart attack histories were 80 percent more likely to have problems with cochlear function than those who did not have such a history. Women with a history of heart attack were 2.7 times more likely to have cochlear dysfunction than women who did not have that history, but the same finding did not apply to men.
"We don't know, technically, which came first," the hearing loss or the heart problem, says lead researcher Dr. Peter Torre III. "A compromise in circulation with some type of cardiovascular event may impact the inner ear."
Torre also can't explain the study's finding that cochlear problems were so much more common in women with heart attack histories. And, he adds, there wasn't a significant association found between angina or stroke and cochlear problems.
"These are preliminary findings, and we don't want people to rush out and get a cochlear function test," Torre says. "And the individuals had decreased cochlear function, but they may not have had hearing difficulties."
He does point out that previous research has suggested a link between heart disease, its risk factors and age-related hearing loss.
It's much too early to dispense any advice based on the Wisconsin study, says Dr. David Meyerson, a cardiologist at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions and a spokesman for the American Heart Association.
Meyerson calls the new findings "interesting and intriguing," but he points out some flaws.
"This study depends heavily on self-reported histories of prior diseases, and a patient's thorough and accurate understanding of their medical conditions," he says. Unfortunately, patients' memories and understanding of their medical problems are not always accurate.
Angina is often caused by the same "pathological pathways" as are heart attacks, Meyerson adds, so he questions why the link didn't hold up for angina.
Given those questions, "the American Heart Association would await the next series of studies from this group and others before drawing any conclusions," he says.
Torres agrees more study is needed.
"Hold on until we get more concrete information," he advises. Meanwhile, taking care of your heart health isn't a bad idea, he says, regardless of whether future studies replicate the heart disease and hearing loss link.