Hearing Loss Tied to More Fatigue in Middle and Older Age

Like many stressful chronic conditions, hearing loss appears to foster fatigue, according to an analysis of National Health and Nutrition Examination Study data published in JAMA Otolaryngology – Head & Neck Surgery.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, examined NHANES data from 2015 to 2016 and 2017 to 2018, including findings on more than 3,000 participants aged 40 and older. Based on the audiometry subset of NHANES data, hearing loss was associated with a higher frequency of fatigue – even after adjustment for demographics, comorbidities, and lifestyle variables such as smoking, alcohol, and body mass index, in a nationally representative sample of adults in middle and older age.

“We wanted to get away from small clinical data and take a look at the population level to see if hearing loss was related to fatigue and, further perhaps, to cognitive decline,” said coauthor Nicholas S. Reed, AuD, PhD, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, in an interview. “We found people with hearing loss had twice the risk of reporting fatigue nearly every day versus those not reporting fatigue.” This cross-sectional study provides needed population-based evidence from a nationally representative sample, according to Dr. Reed and associates, who have been researching the possible connection between age-related hearing loss, physical activity levels, and cognitive decline.

Study details

The 3,031 age-eligible participants had a mean age of 58 years; 48% were male, and 10% were Black. Some hearing loss was reported by 24%.

They responded to the following question: “Over the last 2 weeks, how often have you been bothered by feeling tired or having little energy?” Response categories were “not at all,” “several days,” “more than half the days,” and “nearly every day.” Those with hearing loss were more likely to report fatigue for more than half the days (relative risk ratio, 2.16; 95% confidence interval, 1.27-3.67) and nearly every day (RRR, 2.05; 95% CI, 1.16-3.65), compared with not having fatigue. Additional adjustment for comorbidities and depressive symptoms showed similar results.

Hearing loss was defined as > 25 decibels hearing level (dB HL) versus normal hearing of ≤ 25 dB HL, and continuously by every 10 dB HL poorer. Each 10-dB HL of audiometric hearing loss was associated with a higher likelihood of reporting fatigue nearly every day (RRR, 1.24; 95% CI,1.04-1.47), but not for more than half the days.

The association tended to be stronger in younger, non-Hispanic White, and female participants, but statistical testing did not support differential associations by age, sex, race, or ethnicity.

While some might intuitively expect hearing loss to cause noticeably more fatigue in middle-aged people who may be straining to hear during hours in the daily workplace or at home, Dr. Reed said older people probably feel more hearing-related fatigue owing to age and comorbidities. “And higher physical activity levels of middle-aged adults can be protective.”

Dr. Reed advised primary care physicians to be sure to ask about fatigue and hearing status during wellness exams and take appropriate steps to diagnose and correct hearing problems. “Make sure hearing is part of the health equation because hearing loss can be part of the culprit. And it’s very possible that hearing loss is also contributing to cognitive decline.”

Dr. Reed’s group will soon release data on a clinical trial on hearing loss and cognitive decline.

The authors called for studies incorporating fatigue assessments in order to clarify how hearing loss might contribute to physical and mental fatigue and how it could be associated with downstream outcomes such as fatigue-related physical impairment. Dr. Reed reported grants from the National Institute on Aging during the conduct of the study and stock compensation from the Neosensory Advisory Board outside of the submitted work. Several coauthors reported academic or government research funding as well as fees and honoraria from various private-sector companies.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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