In 2008 Dr. Kathleen Sawhill and Dr. Sandy Leahy combined their many years of experience to form Hearing Solutions of Northwest Michigan—a partnership that works to tailor hearing solutions to each client in a thoughtful, caring manner. New research is showing a link between a number of chronic diseases and hearing loss—which highlights the importance of getting your hearing checked.

There is some pretty fascinating research going on now in the world of hearing loss. Fill us in, please.

Yes. A big area of research in our profession right now is comorbidities—the presence of two or more chronic diseases in a patient and how they are related or linked. There are a number of chronic diseases that have been found to be associated with an increased risk of hearing loss.

What are some of them and what is the connection between the disease and hearing loss?

There is research going on in many areas, but a few associated health conditions include cardiovascular disease, diabetes and dementia.

In examining the relationship between cardiovascular disease and hearing loss, we sometimes observe a change in low-frequency hearing sensitivity as a possible early indicator for cardiovascular disease. Our inner ear is very sensitive to blood flow changes. If there is a disruption to normal blood flow in the inner ear, damage to the structures may occur and can result in a decrease in hearing sensitivity.

In diabetes, research suggests that high glucose levels may damage the nerves and blood vessels in the inner ear that may increase the likelihood of hearing loss. These changes to the inner ear, sometimes combined with peripheral neuropathy, may also cause problems with dizziness or balance function.

There is a lot of discussion about the relationship between dementia and hearing loss. It’s important to know that hearing loss is not causing dementia but there is a relationship—an association. When hearing loss develops and is left untreated, there can be tendency to withdraw from conversations and activities. This lack of stimulation affects brain function and may increase memory problems. Having hearing loss also increases listening effort and cognitive load. Straining to hear can take up mental energy and can influence the energy that is left for other tasks.

This topic is so important. How is it influencing your work at Hearing Solutions of Northwest Michigan?

We are more aware of looking at our patients from a holistic point of view. It’s important to discuss and to be aware of our patients’ other chronic health conditions. Having knowledge of the symptoms and side effects that they may be dealing with helps to guide us through our treatment plan. When the specific needs of the patient are considered and addressed, we have better hearing outcomes.

It used to be that all hearing aids looked and performed about the same—but you are saying you have an ability to personalize them?

Both the selection process and the fitting process are very specific to the needs of each individual. Everyone has different hearing needs. Technology is now allowing us the options to customize the fitting to the exact needs of the patient. Sometimes this may mean making specific changes to the automatic programming of the hearing aid or providing an additional device that allows for improved hearing in a noisy restaurant. Direct streaming from cell phones to the hearing aids has become very common. Our patients are also enjoying the added benefits of streaming music, podcasts and audiobooks to their hearing aids too!

Photo(s) by Cherry Capital Men's Chorus