The Connection Between Hearing Loss and General Health
Did you know that a healthy social life is a better predictor of longevity than smoking, obesity, and alcohol consumption? In today's episode of The HearingTracker Podcast, host Steve Taddei speaks with Brandy Heckroodt, the Audiology Development Manager at Phonak, about the connection between hearing loss, social connections, and general health. You'll learn how hearing loss can lead to social isolation and physical inactivity, which can ultimately lead to increased risk of general health problems like coronary heart disease and stroke.
Steve Taddei: Hey I am Dr. Steve Taddei and you tuned into the Hearing Tracker Podcast.
This episode is all about the links between health and hearing. And I wanted to start this episode by going back nearly a century to an invention that changed us all. I’m talking about the Cathode-ray-tube TV. When it was first flicked on in the 1920s, it connected the world with visual media like never before.
Nowadays, it has led to one of the greatest health risks of our time. Can you guess what it is? Let me give you a hint. If that doesn’t ring a bell, it’s the theme sound of Netflix and, since their launch in 1997, they have perfected the binge-watching era. Ok, I’m not blaming Netflix, we all love watching our favorite shows without commercials. But extreme use of streaming services like Netflix comes at a cost. And health experts have increasing concerns with the associated inactivity, sleep problems, heart disease, and social isolation to name a few.
Brandy Heckroodt: When we’re talking about health and well being, let’s talk first about what the definition is. So the World Health Organization, their constitution states that health is not nearly the absence of a disease, but it’s a state of complete physical, mental, and social wellbeing.
Steve Taddei: That is Dr. Brandy Heckroodt, and she is the Audiology Manager at Phonak. We recently spoke about how these lifestyle choices, such as sociability, influence our health.
Brandy Heckroodt: Let’s actually start with the social-emotional impact. I mean, we’re pack species. In the literature there’s this view of the lone wolf, but in reality the lone wolf dies. We need people. We need social connection. Social connections matter, it actually keeps us alive.
There is a meta analysis done in 2010 by Julianne Holt-Lunstad and Timothy Smith2. And what they found was that above smoking, above obesity, above alcohol consumption, social interactions have a more positive spin on mortality rates. So, by being connected we’re able to stay alive longer.
Steve Taddei: And in our modern world of streaming and social media, we’re ironically more socially isolated as we often consume media alone1. And not surprisingly, we see similar trends when we look at hearing loss.
Brandy Heckroodt: You know people with hearing impairment, their social networks are smaller. They are less involved in social activities. They are more lonely, and then we throw the pandemic in there where they can’t reach out or we’ve got elderly people who are not into Zoom meeting, or different types of ways that we can connect digitally.
Steve Taddei: The available evidence is pretty convincing. I came across another study that found that poor social relationships were associated with nearly a 30% increased risk of coronary heart disease4. That same study also found over a 30% increased risk of stroke. And that’s just social isolation, but what about physical activity?
Brandy Heckroodt: And research suggests that hearing loss is associated with less time spent engaging in physical activities. More time spent in sedentary activities and a more fragmented pattern of physical activity. In fact, if you compare somebody with hearing loss against their normal hearing peers, that person with hearing loss is around 7 years older physically. And then when it comes to that fragmented physical activity, they’re actually 10 years older than somebody with normal hearing—if you take a look at their peers.
So, we know that it’s important for people to stay healthy and active. The World Health Organization, it recommends older adults they limit the amount of time that they spend in their seats, and physical activity helps prevent falls, fall related injuries, and keeps us strong and healthy.
Steve Taddei: While this isn’t exactly great news, there are actually plenty of things we can do to mitigate these risks. Here’s what Brandy had to say.
Brandy Heckroodt: We see with hearing rehabilitation people are more engaged. We have improved spousal relationships and peer relationships. So we know that when it comes to hearing rehabilitation, getting people hearing help early on, keeps their social networks strong.
Steve Taddei: And Brandy, and her team at Phonak, have been working on new technology that will help bridge this gap between hearing and fitness.
Brandy Heckroodt: We’ve got steps, we’ve got activity level. So what type of activity, what environments were you in? And also this optional motivational goals.
Steve Taddei: More on the Phonak Fit, Life, and Slim coming up after the break.
Thank you for listening to the HearingTracker Podcast. If you didn’t know, May is Better Hearing and Speech Month. Meaning, it’s time for us to draw attention to hazardous sound exposure. It is a public health issue, and it’s no surprise as our lives keep getting louder. Even the pandemic has brought about new risks as people are wearing headphones most of the day.
Fortunately, this doesn’t mean we’re all doomed to a life of hearing injury. It can be as simple as limiting your exposure to loud sounds, wearing earplugs, and keeping the volume down when listening to your favorite podcast - I know that last ones hard. Jokes aside, there are so many easy tips and tricks to protect yourself. So happy Better Hearing and Speech Month, and call your local hearing care provider to hear what you can do to protect your ears.
Just before the break we started discussing Phonak’s new product launch. And this was all in the context of how can we fight the social isolation and physical inactivity associated with hearing loss? So let’s hear more about what Phonak has been up to.
Brandy Heckroodt: We have three new products that we’ve launched this Spring. When it comes to what we’ve done with our new hearing instruments, we have the Audéo Fit. Audéo Fit has sensors built on the receiver of the devices.
Steve Taddei: What is a receiver? Well it's just the speaker that sits down inside your ear.
Brandy Heckroodt: And what the receiver does, is it can do a couple of different things. One, it measures heart rate. So, the sensor itself measures heart rate through a technology called PPG —Photoplethysmography. We ask people “Are you down with PPG?” So, photoplethysmography has been out and it’s in a lot of health devices now. So if you ever get your pulse ox taken at the doctors, where they put that little clip on the end of your finger, that’s using PPG technology.
So what does it do? It actually shines a light into the skin. And there’s a sensor that measures the light when it comes back. If there’s a lot of blood in the blood vessel, more light is going to be absorbed and so the sensor is going to get less information back. So the sensor can read the heart rate and actually the ear is a very good place to put sensors. For many different reasons. One is that there’s less artifacts that have to do with movement that we get on the wrist with FitBits and such. We also have really good blood perfusion. So it’s a very good place to read some diagnostic information.
Steve Taddei: In the near future, we’ll likely be able to pull other biometrics such as temperature too. But for now, one of the other included sensors is what’s called an accelerometer, or simply a device that measures proper acceleration.
This is what allows you to track steps and activity levels on your phone and other fitness devices. But when combined with hearing aids, other information from the microphones and sensors can be used together. For example, accelerometers can measure your movement, that information can be used to augment hearing aid features such as microphones and their directional behavior. Brandy shared an example of how hearing aid processing, such as microphone settings, can have a significant impact on performance and social interaction.
Brandy Heckroodt: So we did a participation study where we put people in a group. Some had a fixed directional other people had StereoZoom, a narrower beam of directionality. And we had a facilitator and we just had people have a conversation. We had video cameras everywhere and there were behaviorists that actually looked at these videos and they rated people’s engagement in the activity. What we saw were people with StereoZoom active, so a narrow beam of directionality, they were 15% more engaged and more active in the conversation than those with a fixed directional pattern3.
Steve Taddei: And Brandy mentioned that all these sensors can be used in a similar way to help improve your fitness. For example, all that data can be stored on the myPhonak phone app. Making it easier for you to track averages and your progress through personal goals.
Brandy Heckroodt: We know that goal setting is important to people, and gamification, and people like to live up to what they say they’re going to do. We do know that a 3rd of people that get FitBits or health tracking devices, they usually give up after 6 months. We know with hearing aid use, there’s not as much giving up.
Steve Taddei: There’s another element of this fitness discussion that’s kinda been lurking in the background, and that’s moisture. Technology and water do not mix. So in order to make devices for fitness, they had to make them for water too. And this is really highlighted in their Audio Life device.
Brandy Heckroodt: Audéo Life, let’s talk about Life. They are waterproof, they are the first rechargeable waterproof RIC (receiver in the canal).
Steve Taddei: When it comes to electric devices, there’s what’s known as an IP rating, which classifies a device's resilience against foregn bodies such as dust and water. And I asked Brandy where Audéo Life falls in this code.
Brandy Heckroodt: Yea they’re actually beyond IP68. 68 is the highest rating that we can get. 6 means 8 hours in a dust chamber and the dust did not impact the functionality of the hearing device. The “8” is usually done with fresh water, we did it with salt water, we did it with pool water. So we tested it many different ways with many different types of water. We not only submerged it but then we took it out of the water and we let it sit in the humid compartment for minutes at a time before the next submersion. So we kind of copied that humid environment, the humidity that people will experience out in the real world. So now you don’t have to worry about taking them out when you’re gardening, or taking them out when you get caught in the rain, or taking them out for aqua aerobics or aqua jogging.
Steve Taddei: With Phonak’s new product launch we see an array of devices. The Life, which is available now, is water proof and allows you to track fitness with an app. The Slim offers similar features in a smaller, more discrete body. Then there’s the Fit, allowing you to monitor your heart rate on top of other fitness tracking. Together, these devices aim to make it easier than ever for people to achieve their hearing and fitness goals.
Brandy Heckroodt: We’ve been talking about “well-hearing” as well-being for a number of years at Phonak because we really believe that there is this intrinsic link between people’s overall well-being and their ability to hear well in many different domains.
That’s why there’s a social-emotional, cognitive, and physical domain and they’re so important for people to have an overall well balanced life. And having the ability to have any kind of health tracking is so exciting that it’s a different place than my finger, or my wrist. And I love the idea that it may help people stay with hearing rehabilitation, be compliant with hearing rehabilitation, and be encouraged to talk about it with other people.
Steve Taddei: I’d like to thank Dr. Brandy Heckroodt and Phonak for coming on the show to talk about health and hearing. There is so much more to this story, these devices, and the Phonak Paradis platform. To learn more, visit Phonak.com.
Today’s episode was produced by me with help from Dr. Abram Bailey. Thank you for listening and I hope you enjoyed today’s episode.
- ARRIS Enterprises. (2015) Consumer Entertainment Index. Arrisi.com.
- Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Layton JB. (2010) Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review. PLoS Med. 27;7(7)
- Schulte M, Meis M, Kruger M, Latzel M, Appleton-Huber J. (2018) Field Study: Significant Increase in the Amount of Social Interaction When Using StereoZoom. Phonak.
- Valtorta NK, Kanaan M, Gilbody S, Ronzi S, Hanratty B. (2016) Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke: systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal observational studies. Heart;102:1009-1016.
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