Sleep Apnea and Hearing Loss: A Complicated Connection?

Normally, your breathing slows when you fall asleep. But for the estimated 18 million Americans with sleep apnea, it slows too much—and even stops for short periods. Eventually your body will force you to breathe, usually loudly or suddenly, disturbing your sleep and often your partner’s too. In fact, your partner may notice signs of sleep apnea before you do. Take note if you’re getting complaints about your loud snoring or sudden gasps for breath during the night.

Sleep Apnea Is More Harmful Than You Might Expect

Breathing difficulties at night are obviously not a recipe for restful sleep or alertness the next day. But it turns out that sleep apnea is responsible for more than just sleep difficulties. It has been associated with:

  • Hormone and endocrine problems
  • Generalized inflammation throughout the body
  • Cardiovascular difficulties
  • Hearing loss
 

Of these issues, hearing loss may be the most surprising. Some theories suggest that the inflammation and circulatory issues brought on by sleep apnea may lead to damage in the inner ear.

Scientists have linked sleep apnea to a decreased ability to hear certain frequencies, understand conversations in noisy environments and pick up softer sounds. In a study of nearly 14,000 men and women who had completed both a sleep study and a hearing evaluation, subjects with sleep apnea were:

  • More than 30% more likely to have high-frequency hearing loss
  • 90% more likely to have low-frequency hearing loss
  • Nearly 40% more likely to have both high and low-frequency hearing loss

Lifestyle Changes Can Make a Real Difference

There are some simple lifestyle changes that may help curb the severity of sleep apnea:

  • Lose weight. Although not all sleep apnea sufferers are overweight, many are. Shedding extra pounds helps to get rid of weight that presses on the windpipe and makes it harder for you to breathe.
  • Quit smoking. Need another reason to put those cigarettes down for good? Tobacco use leads to increased inflammation and makes sleep apnea symptoms worse.
 

Seek Treatment—and a Hearing Evaluation—If You Have Sleep Apnea

At this point, the research doesn’t prove that sleep apnea causes hearing loss, only that it is associated with it. But there’s enough evidence to suggest that if you do have sleep apnea you should get your hearing checked. Miracle-Ear offers free hearing evaluations at more than 1,400 locations across the county, so there’s really no excuse to put it off.

If you take these steps and are still experiencing sleep apnea symptoms, it might be time to consult a sleep specialist, who can discuss other very effective options to curb this condition. If you are diagnosed with sleep apnea, your doctor may suggest you use a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine when you sleep to help keep your breathing regular.

If you’re not sure whether or not you have sleep apnea, talk to your doctor about scheduling a sleep study.