Upping omega-3 intake may protect hearing, research concludes

By Olivia Haslam

- Last updated on GMT

GettyImages - woman with earphones / adamkaz
GettyImages - woman with earphones / adamkaz

Related tags omega 3 EPA and DHA Omega-3 fatty acid Docosahexaenoic acid Sound Hearing loss Biobank Dha

New research suggests that increasing your intake of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), may reduce the prevalence of hearing problems in middle-aged and older adults.

A population-based cross-sectional study conducted by researchers using data from the UK Biobank​, the biomedical database, found an inverse correlation between blood levels of DHA and self-reported hearing difficulty.

Individuals with higher DHA levels were found to be 8-20% less likely to experience age-related hearing issues compared to those with lower DHA levels.

Significance

Hearing loss affects a significant portion of the global population, with an estimated 1.5 billion people worldwide​ living with some form of hearing impairment. 

This number is expected to rise as the population ages. Hearing loss can have a profound impact​ on communication, social interactions, education, job opportunities, and various aspects of daily life.

While environmental factors, genetic predispositions, and medications contribute to hearing loss, protecting the ears from loud noises​ and seeking appropriate medical care for infections are proven ways to reduce the risk.

Omega-3s and Hearing 

Omega-3s are believed to support the health of inner ear cells​ and help mitigate inflammatory responses caused by loud noises, chemicals, or infections.

Previous studies​ conducted on older adults and animals have also suggested a protective effect of higher omega-3 levels against age-related hearing loss.

Since bodies have limited ability to produce DHA​, quantities in blood and tissue largely depend on omega-3 intake. Regular consumption of seafood or the use of dietary supplements can increase DHA levels.

It has been hypothesised that PUFAs may benefit hearing by the maintenance of adequate cochlear vascular supply through multiple mechanisms, including triglyceride lowering, hypolipidemic properties​, and anti-inflammatory and anti-atherothrombotic properties​. 

Previous studies​ also found that dietary n-6 PUFA may help to improve endothelial function and chronic inflammation.

Michael I. McBurney, Ph.D., a senior scientist with the Fatty Acid Research Institute, stated: “Higher DHA levels have previously been found to be associated with a lower risk of heart disease, cognitive impairment, and death.

“Our study extends these findings to suggest a role for DHA in maintaining auditory function and helping reduce the risk of age-related hearing loss.”

The research

The researchers analysed data from 115,303 individuals aged 40-69 in the United Kingdom, taking into account various confounding variables. 

Results showed that 38% of participants reported difficulty hearing, 26% of 113,134 reported background noise hearing problems, and 5% of 71,368 respondents used hearing aids.  

People with the highest DHA levels had lower risk [Odds Ratio; OR (95% CI)] of hearing loss relative to those in the lowest group. 

After accounting for potential confounding variables, results showed that people in the highest quintile of blood DHA levels had a 16% lower likelihood of reporting hearing difficulty and an 11% lower likelihood of experiencing difficulty following conversations in noisy environments, compared to those in the lowest quintile.

While the findings highlight a significant association between DHA levels and hearing, McBurney cautioned that a cross-sectional population study cannot definitively conclude that DHA maintains auditory function or that inadequate DHA levels contribute to hearing loss. 

However, the study adds to the growing body of evidence suggesting the importance of omega-3 fatty acids, specifically DHA, in maintaining overall health and protecting against age-related declines in various bodily functions.

The study, led by McBurney, will be presented at Nutrition 2023, the annual meeting of the American Society for Nutrition in Boston next week.

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