The sense of hearing is certainly a wonderful gift, yet it is one that is widely taken for granted – that is, until noticeable changes start to occur.  For many, hearing loss is simply accepted as part of the aging process. However, age-related hearing loss leads to difficulties and frustrations with everyday communication and can greatly contribute to the loneliness and depression that is so pervasive among the elderly.

The inescapable reality exists that aging elicits some degree of hearing loss in most individuals. It is, quite simply (and unfortunately), part of getting older. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), “…18 percent of American adults 45-64 years old, 30 percent of adults 65-74 years old, and 47 percent of adults 75 years old or older have a hearing loss.”  While some of these cases can be attributed to long hours spent in a loud factory, listening to loud music or frequent exposure to high pitch sounds (all of which may produce irreparable hearing loss), it is also hopeful to note that there are dietary measures that can be taken to support auditory health and help preserve this important sensory tool, in spite of aging.

An important and often lacking dietary fat, known as omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), may play an important role in the ability to hear sounds adequately, especially as we age and normal auditory function starts to decline. This fat is found abundantly in fish and seafood – a category of protein that is not considered an American staple. An interest in the relationship between omega-3 PUFAs and auditory health was spawned by a recent study that discovered a correlation between fish intake and age-related hearing loss. In this study, individuals over 50 years of age who ate fish two or more times each week were less likely to develop age-related hearing loss compared to those who did not consume fish on a regular basis. Therefore, it was concluded that adequate intake of omega-3 PUFAs may protect the ear from age-related decline and subsequent hearing loss – a promising outcome indeed.

The ability of this amazing fat to protect hearing is not completely understood; however, omega-3 fats are known to accomplish many beneficial tasks in the body, which may indirectly influence auditory health. For example, omega-3s are known to support healthy blood flow and a healthy cardiovascular system. The most important part of the ear – the cochlea – contains many small, fine hairs that help us distinguish tones. The cochlea and these important hairs are fed by one main blood vessel that delivers oxygen and nutrients to the ear.  As we age, blood flow may slow down as a result of high cholesterol, plaque development, hardening of the arteries and other similar conditions. The cochlea is sensitive to changes in blood flow and may not be fed adequately, leading to degeneration. Therefore, by helping to support a healthy cardiovascular system and healthy blood flow, omega-3 PUFAs may support the overall wellness of the inner ear, helping to hinder age-related deterioration that may lead to hearing loss.

It is a wise idea, at virtually any age, to safeguard the delicate structures of our ears as best we can.  We should all be cognizant of limiting our exposure to a barrage of loud noises (i.e., firecrackers, power tools, high decibel concerts, even extended periods of time using personal listening devices that require earbuds).  Yet, it is encouraging to know that nutritional support from omega-3 fats, through adequate fish consumption and additional supplementation, can be beneficial in helping to protect the gift of hearing.