“What drinking problem? I drink, I get drunk, I fall down. No problem!” — Anonymous
Millions of words have been written about the positive and negative social aspects of drinking, but only in recent years has serious research been done on the medical affects of moderate and heavy alcohol consumption. For anyone worried about hearing loss, the research is yielding important and sometimes surprising results.
Finding #1: A glass of red wine a day might help prevent hearing loss…
After a 1991 60 Minutes report on lower rates of heart disease among populations that consume lots of red wine – the so-called “French Paradox” – it’s been a common belief that one or two glasses a day can help avoid dreaded “hardening of the arteries” that leads to strokes and other coronary problems. To understand why, researchers discovered that resveratrol, an antioxidant found in the skin of red grapes, can reduce inflammation and help lower cholesterol.
Hearing loss researchers then went on to see if resveratrol might have a similar beneficial affect on hearing health. Apparently it does, especially for one of the most common hearing problems, noise-induced hearing loss. A 2013 study at the Henry Ford Health System funded by the National Institute of Deafness and Communicative Disorders found that when healthy rats were given resveratrol before being exposed to loud noise for a long period of time, they were “less likely to suffer the long-term effects of noise-induced hearing loss.”
The authors also hypothesized that resveratrol’s anti-inflammation, “anti-aging” attributes might also slow the degradation of the hearing hair cells associated with age-related hearing loss, as well as cognitive decline that can impair auditory comprehension in aging adults.
Evidence for the protective effects of alcohol on hearing has also been found for humans. In 2014, a group of researchers in the UK found a decreased risk of hearing loss for those who reported drinking occasionally, and even for those who had a drink daily. The findings were impressive, especially considering the sample size of over 150,000 people!
Finding #2: But too much alcohol can cause serious damage to hearing nerves…
Unfortunately, the difference between a couple of glasses of red wine versus a couple of bottles a day can be profound. Very heavy alcohol consumption can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, which is a known risk factor for hearing loss. Hypertension isn’t good for your body, and it turns out it isn’t good for your hearing either!
A 2007 study on young adults in London found that heavy alcohol consumption increased the hearing threshold – the ability to hear sounds at a certain level of amplification – at most frequencies. In other words, the more you drink, the harder it may be to hear. Most important, the study concluded that “alcohol specifically blunts lower frequencies in the 1000 Hz range, which is the most crucial frequency for speech discrimination.” These changes were often temporary, reversing themselves when the subjects stopped drinking, but the researchers cautioned that too many episodes of temporary hearing loss can often progress to permanent loss.
The study also noted that presbyacusis – long-term degradation of the hearing hair cells – may be exacerbated by heavy alcohol use, which means drinking might accelerate the process of normal age-related hearing loss.
Finding #3: And “cocktail party deafness” may be even worse than you think.
As people grow older, difficulty understanding speech in noisy environments, especially loud restaurants or cocktail parties, is a common problem. Even small degrees of age-related hearing loss can start to diminish the “cocktail party effect” that enables a listener to screen out extraneous noise and focus on a single conversation.
Once researchers discovered that heavy consumption of alcohol can diminish hearing, it became clear that when loud partiers raise their voices, they are not only trying to compete with other loud talkers but also may be compensating for diminished hearing overall after everyone’s had a few too many. When that many people start talking that much louder – and when noise levels rise to more than 85 decibels over an extended period – then everyone’s hearing is at risk.
That means “cocktail party deafness” can come in two varieties – damage to your hearing system from too much noise for too long a period, and damage to your cardiovascular health from exposure to the alcohol in too many cocktails.
The general dangers of alcohol abuse have been well chronicled, and for people who drink far too much, potential hearing loss may be the least of their problems. But for social drinkers who rarely if ever overindulge, moderate amounts of alcohol in the diet may well have potential positive affects. Those social drinkers might listen to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who counseled “moderation in all things,” but famously added, “especially moderation.” In our noisy world, hearing loss from environmental sound over which we have no control is a problem we all have to be aware of. So if that glass of wine or two a day (and no more) provides a little extra protection against noise-induced hearing loss – along with some additional protection against age-related hearing loss – it may be enough to make that guilty pleasure a little less guilty.
About David Copithorne
David has been blogging about hearing issues for a long time. As someone who has progressed from mild to profound hearing loss, he has had a chance to experience almost everything that the hearing industry has to offer. He currently utilizes cochlear implants in both ears. Read more of David’s musings at the Hearing Mojo blog.
Last modified: March 30, 2016