Iron deficiency anemia is a common medical condition where low levels of iron in the blood limit its ability to deliver oxygen throughout the body. Marked by fatigue, difficulty breathing, weakness, exhaustion and poor appetite, iron deficiency anemia may also have a less commonly recognized impact: hearing loss.
If you’ve recognized some of these symptoms, read on to learn more about the connection between iron deficiency anemia and hearing loss
In a study published in JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery late December, 2016, a team of researchers from Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine, led by Kathleen M. Schieffer, BS, reviewed data from over 305,000 patients of the Penn State Hershey Medical Center. Their sampling, taken over the span of 2011 until 2015, looked for participant data that included hearing analysis alongside indicators of iron levels (both hemoglobin and serum ferritin).
The study categorized iron deficiency anemia patients based on their recorded hemoglobin and serum ferritin levels, using a standardized low threshold for serum ferritin (any amount less than 12 nanograms per milliliter) and a variable hemoglobin limit based on age and sex. Parameters for hearing loss were also set based on patient data. Subjects who demonstrated hearing loss were categorized into three types of hearing impairment: conductive, sensorineural, and combined.
These three categories of hearing loss relate to where hearing issues are found in the ear. Conductive loss
refers to problems in the ear canal, encompassing the outer and middle ear and including the eardrum. Conductive hearing impairment is often the most repairable type of auditory loss. Sensorineural hearing loss relates to damage of the inner ear or auditory nerve pathways. Sensorineural problems with the ear usually result in permanent, irreparable injury to hearing. Combined hearing loss indicates aspects of both conductive and sensorineural problems as factors in hearing loss.
When the data was arrayed and analyzed, Schieffer and her colleagues found significant correlations. Subjects who had iron deficiency anemia were 82% likelier to suffer from sensorineural hearing loss. An even greater likelihood was found for those with iron deficiency anemia to demonstrate combined hearing loss. This large increase in risk demonstrates a link between the harm caused by iron deficiency anemia and the auditory system’s susceptibility to such damage. It is also a demonstration of the long-range impact of iron-deficiency anemia which is commonly associated with temporary symptoms.
Proposing potential reasons for such an increased risk of hearing loss, the authors noted the body’s method of blood delivery to the ear. A single artery is responsible for blood reaching the cochlea of the inner ear. Iron deficiency depletes hemoglobin, the substance in red blood cells responsible for carrying oxygen. This diminished conveyance can result in tissue damage from oxygen starvation, medically known as “ischemia”. Anemia-related ischemia has been most commonly observed in relationship to the heart muscles, but with their new findings the Penn State researchers suggest iron deficiency anemia may cause ischemia in the fragile parts of the inner ear as well.
Unlike sensorineural hearing loss, iron deficiency anemia is easily corrected with oral supplements of iron. As iron deficiency anemia is cured, many of its symptoms are alleviated. Characteristically, energy returns to the body as the full oxygen capacity of blood is restored. However, it remains to be studied what the effects of anemia correction on hearing damage are in both the short term and the long term.
Although iron deficiency anemia is simple to correct, it is important to consult a doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment. Just as a shortage of iron is detrimental to the body, a surplus can have far reaching ill effects as well. An accumulation of iron in the body can significantly damage the liver. If you think you may be showing signs of iron deficiency anemia, your first step is to visit your physician. Only take iron supplements with medical guidance.
Remarkable repercussions are always happening in our bodies, and it’s important to remember how interconnected all of our biological systems are. Considering the health of our inner ear and all of its delicate components, its humbling to consider how reliant some of our most specialized organs are upon our holistic health. As this new research from Penn State shows, unexpected factors may have a role in our hearing health.
If you have any concerns about your hearing wellness
, reach out to our hearing specialists at Puget Sound