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Study Links Sleep Apnea to Hearing Loss

Update Date: May 21, 2014 01:49 PM EDT

Sleep apnea is a disorder characterized by breathing pauses or shallow breaths during sleep. Without proper treatment, the chronic illness can repeatedly disrupt sleep and lead to other health complications. In a new study, researchers found that sleep apnea might increase one's risk of hearing loss.

"Sleep apnea is more of a systemic and chronic disease than just something that happens when you're sleeping," said study author Dr. Neomi Shah, an associate director of the pulmonary sleep lab at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City reported by Philly. "It probably affects multiple different organs, so I would probably urge we start thinking about sleep apnea as more like a chronic disease with vascular and inflammatory issues."

For this study, the researchers examined data on nearly 14,000 participants from the Hispanic Community Health Study/Study of Latinos. 53 percent of the participants were females and the average age was 41. The data included information collected through in-home sleep studies and hearing tests.

The researchers found that 10 percent of the sample set had sleep apnea. 30 percent of the participants had some degree of hearing impairment. After factoring in variables, such as gender, age, health-related issues, noise exposure and history of hearing loss or snoring, the researchers found that people who were more likely to have some kind of impairment were of Cuban and Puerto Rican descent with a higher body mass index (BMI). People with hearing loss also had a history of snoring or had been clinically diagnosed with sleep apnea.

When the team examined the effects of sleep apnea specifically, they found that the condition was tied to a 31 percent increase in high frequency hearing loss. The sleeping disorder was tied to a 90 percent increase in low frequency hearing loss. Sleep apnea was linked to a 38 percent increase for both high and low frequency hearing impairment.

"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" said lead author Amit Chopra, MD, currently at the Albany Medical Center in New York, reported in the press release. "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."

The study's findings were presented at the American Thoracic Society annual meeting in San Diego, CA.

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