The National Sleep Foundation estimates more than 18 million Americans have sleep apnea. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, the condition causes you to stop and restart breathing many times while sleeping. This can prevent your body from getting enough oxygen.
There are two types of sleep apnea.
- Obstructive sleep apnea happens when your upper airway becomes blocked many times while you sleep, reducing or completely stopping airflow. This is the most common type of sleep apnea. Anything that could narrow your airway such as being overweight, large tonsils, or changes in your hormone levels can increase your risk for obstructive sleep apnea.
- Central sleep apnea happens when your brain does not send the signals needed to breathe. Health conditions that affect how your brain controls your airway and chest muscles can cause central sleep apnea.
To diagnose sleep apnea, your provider may have you do a sleep study. Breathing devices such as continuous positive air pressure (CPAP) machines and lifestyle changes are common sleep apnea treatments. If these treatments do not work, surgery may be recommended to correct the problem that is causing the sleep apnea. If your sleep apnea is not diagnosed or treated, you may not get enough good quality sleep. This can lead to trouble concentrating, making decisions, remembering things, or controlling your behavior.
Now for the interesting part—sleep apnea is linked to a host of other health problems, including hearing loss. According to a 2022 observational study published in the journal Clinical Otolaryngology, of nearly 7,000 older adults in Europe, individuals with sleep apnea were 21% more likely to have a hearing impairment.
Based on these results, the study authors recommended that individuals diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea be screened for hearing loss.
A different study of nearly 14,000 people found that hearing impairment was more common among those who had a higher body mass index, snored and had severe sleep apnea.
While the evidence seems to be mounting that there is a connection between sleep apnea and hearing loss, it’s not known if there is a direct cause and effect. More research is needed. What is known is that sleep apnea reduces blood flow to the ears, which need a healthy blood supply to work properly.
Other health problems also have been linked to hearing loss.
- Research has shown those diagnosed with heart disease are more than 50% more likely to have some type of hearing impairment.
- According to the American Diabetes Association, patients with diabetes are twice as likely to have hearing loss as those who do not.
- Smokers are more likely to develop hearing loss because the habit depletes oxygen levels in the inner ear.
- Untreated high blood pressure can also contribute to hearing loss as well as tinnitus, which is also known as ringing in the ears.
The connection to other hearing-related conditions, such as tinnitus, Meniere’s disease and dizziness is less well-established and more research is needed.
In the meantime, if you have sleep apnea, or suspect you do, schedule an appointment with your primary care provider. You may need a sleep study to diagnose the condition and guide recommendations for treatment.
Based on the latest research, it also might be a good idea to have a doctoral-level audiologist check your hearing, especially if you also have heart disease, diabetes or high blood pressure.