Can Air Pollution Affect Our Hearing Abilities?

Can Air Pollution Affect Our Hearing Abilities?

In Hearing Health, Hearing Loss, Hearing Loss Causes by Roselynn Gamboa Young, Au.D., CCC-A

Roselynn Gamboa Young, Au.D., CCC-A

When we think about preventing hearing loss, habits of our individual lifestyles come to mind. We know that wearing earplugs and avoiding excessive volumes of sound are effective at preventing noise-induced hearing loss. Limiting the volume on earbuds and headphones is another important way to prevent noise-induced loss. In addition, recent studies have shown promising effects of diet and exercise for lowering the risk of hearing loss. These lifestyle habits seem to reduce inflammation and promote healthy blood flow to the ears where the tiny hairlike organelles called stereocilia need plenty of oxygenated blood to remain functioning. In addition to these lifestyle factors, though, environmental and social factors can contribute to hearing loss. One recent study found higher rates of hearing loss among populations with exposure to air pollution. The study used 20 years of data to compare the rates of hearing loss between different groups. Let’s take a look at the study, as well as what can be done at the level of public policy to prevent hearing loss. 

The Study

Researchers in Taiwan used a large dataset of 75,767 participants over 20 years from the National Health Insurance Research Database to track rates of hearing loss over time. They were able to divide these people into groups of low-level, mid-level, and high-level exposure to carbon monoxide (CO) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2). These two noxious gases are known to contribute to other negative health effects, and they were curious if hearing loss would be affected, as well. After controlling for other factors between these groups, they were able to isolate the effects of pollution in the environment on rates of hearing loss. As they had hypothesized, the group with high-level exposure to CO and NO2 had the highest rates of hearing loss, as well. Those who were exposed to mid-levels of these gases also had elevated risk of hearing loss, compared with the low-level group. 

The Interpretation

These findings led researchers to consider what might be causing such profound differences. Why would those with worse air quality have higher rates of hearing loss? Other health studies have helped them speculate about a possible relationship. This study was not equipped to observe mechanisms within the body that relate air quality to hearing loss, but other related studies helped them understand what might be going on at a microscopic, biological level. When a population has worse air quality, they are also receiving proportionally less oxygen in their lungs. That lack of oxygen is carried along to the ears, and a similar effect can be witnessed as those who have cardiovascular disease. Cardiovascular disease is correlated with higher rates of hearing loss, as well, so the researchers theorize that a similar biological pathway might occur for those who have poor air quality. Without sufficient oxygen, the stereocilia are susceptible to damage and breaking, leading to hearing loss. 

Policy Solutions

Public health advocates use this information to come up with policy interventions that can affect rates of hearing loss at the population level. When an entire population has exposure to these noxious gases, they have higher rates of hearing loss, so interventions in air pollution can create a ripple effect of better health. The cost of air quality policies can be offset by social savings in health care costs for those who have hearing loss and other health conditions related to air pollution. If you are interested in advocating for better hearing health at the level of public health, you can talk with your local representatives about air quality measures in your area. In addition to these interventions in social policy, individual-level interventions are important. You can promote better air quality at home with a HEPA air purifier. In addition, if you have already found that you have trouble hearing, it is important to seek treatment as soon as possible. Beginning with a hearing test, you can embark on the path toward assistance. Those who get treatment for hearing loss have better health outcomes in many regards, and you can take care of yourself through this simple step of scheduling a hearing test. Don’t delay getting your hearing diagnosis from our team of hearing health professionals!