While hearing loss is a condition that affects more than 48 million people in the U.S., sleep apnea is another serious health risk that impacts approximately 18 million Americans. These two conditions may sound like they have nothing in common, but recent research has indicated that there could be a strong correlation between the two.

Sleep apnea is a disorder in which breathing can be frequently disrupted during sleep, prompting severe reactions causing sufferers to wake up all throughout the night. Specifically, apnea refers to periods of pausing during sleep breathing, which can typically be alluded to respiratory blockage during loud snoring. These pauses in breaths can last anywhere from a few seconds to minutes at a time, depending on the severity of the condition.

The disturbances are divided into two main categories, called obstructive or central sleep apnea. Obstructive is the most common form and occurs when the throat muscles are not relaxing properly, failing to keep airways open and therefore blocking breathing paths. Central is more severe, and is attributed to the brain not being able to properly send signals to the muscles that regulate breathing.

The study
Researchers from the Albany Medical Center in New York examined 13,967 individuals from the Hispanic Community Health Study/Study of Latinos to test their hypothesis that sleep apnea and hearing loss could be linked. The subjects were administered to in-home sleep apnea tests that measured indicators of apnea severity by counting the number of instances air passages were blocked during sleep. Auditory impairment was then tested by evaluating high and low frequency hearing ability, using a range of Hertz levels to see if certain sounds were too high or low for subjects to register.

Out of all of the participants studied, 9.9 percent were found to have a variation of sleep apnea, while more than 20 percent had high or low frequency hearing loss. Those who were diagnosed with sleep apnea had a 38 percent increase in likelihood that they had both high and low frequency hearing loss, including a 90 percent greater chance of specifically low frequency hearing loss.

Dr. Amit Chopra, a clinician at the Albany Medical Center in New York and lead author of the study, admitted that while further research needs to be conducted to cement the link, he feared that sleep apnea not only enhanced hearing loss but other severe diseases as well.

“Patients with sleep apnea are at increased risk for a number of comorbidities, including heart disease and diabetes, and our findings indicate that sleep apnea is also associated with an increased risk of hearing impairment,” Chopra said in a statement. “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.”

Preventing sleep apnea
Therapy is generally the only available treatment to help ease sleep apnea symptoms, but detecting indications of the condition is the most efficient path toward prevention. Sleep apnea generally goes undiagnosed, because people who have it do not recognize their side effects because they are asleep. The primary ways to tell if you or someone you know is suffering from sleep apnea include:

  • Loud snoring
  • Choking or excessive coughing during sleep
  • Increase in daytime sleepiness
  • Waking up with dry or sore throat
  • Frequent morning headaches

Identifying these symptoms and being proactive about receiving professional care can not only get you on the right path toward treatment, but could potentially decrease your odds of hearing loss as well.

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