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Can omega-3 fatty acids help protect against hearing loss?

Researchers from the University of Guelph and Tufts University/Fatty Acid Research Institute have found a link between increased omega-3 fatty acids in the blood and less age-related hearing issues.

Corrie Pelc, Medical News Today, Jul 28, 2023

As we age, it is not uncommon for the effectiveness of some of our senses - including vision, hearing, and taste - to decrease.

In fact, research shows the rate of hearing loss increases with age. In the United States, about 25% of people ages 65 to 74 and almost half of adults aged 75 and older have disabling hearing loss.

Although age-related hearing loss cannot yet be stopped, people can take steps to safeguard their hearing, such as avoiding loud noises and using hearing protection when in high-noise situations.

Now researchers from the University of Guelph and Tufts University/Fatty Acid Research Institute have found middle-aged and older adults with higher levels of the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) were 8-20% less likely to report age-related hearing issues compared to those with lower DHA levels.

This research was recently presented at NUTRITION 2023, the flagship annual meeting of the American Society for Nutrition.

What’s the link between omega-3s and hearing loss?

Dr. Michael I. McBurney, a senior scientist with the Fatty Acid Research Institute and an adjunct professor in the Department of Human Health & Nutritional Sciences at the University of Guelph and the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, and lead author of this study told Medical News Today they decided to study the effect of omega-3s on age-related hearing issues as they were intrigued by findings in animals that offspring hearing development was affected by maternal omega-3 intake during pregnancy.

“Cochlear metabolism in animals was affected by omega-3s. Higher consumption of fish and omega-3s was inversely associated with age-related hearing loss in humans. So we decided to explore the relationship between plasma omega-3 levels and self-reported hearing loss in the UK Biobank cohort - a very large cross-sectional study.”

- Dr. Michael I. McBurney, lead study author

For this study, Dr. McBurney and his team used self-reported hearing status and blood DHA levels of more than 100,000 people ages 40-69 from the UK Biobank.

Upon analysis, researchers found participants in the highest quintile of blood DHA levels were 16% less likely to answer “yes” to the question “Do you have difficulty hearing?” compared to those in the lowest quintile of DHA levels.

The highest quintile participants were also 11% less likely to respond “yes” when asked, “Do you have difficulty following conversations when there is background noise?” compared to the lowest quintile.

Scientists found that middle-aged and older adults with higher DHA levels were 8-20% less likely to report age-related hearing issues than those with lower DHA levels.

“We had hypothesized that there would be an inverse relationship between plasma omega-3 concentrations and age- and sex-adjusted hearing loss,” Dr. McBurney said.

“It was rewarding to confirm this hypothesis, even when further adjusted for poverty (Townsend Deprivation Index), behavioral characteristics (BMI, smoking, and alcohol consumption), and inflammation biomarkers (C-reactive protein, neutrophil: lymphocyte ratio).”

What are omega-3 fatty acids?

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of “good” fat the body needs for a variety of functions, making them “essential” fats.

There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids:

The body needs omega-3 fatty acids to:

Over the past few years, much research has been conducted on omega-3 fatty acids and their impact on other areas of body health, such as reducing inflammation, improving eye health, and protecting against age-related neurodegeneration.

And previous studies show omega-3s may aid in certain diseases, including cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis, autoimmune diseases, depression, and even some types of cancer.

Although the body requires omega-3 fatty acids, it is not able to make omega-3 fatty acids on its own. Instead, it must rely on obtaining them through foods rich in omega-3s and supplements.

Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids include:

How to get more omega-3 in your diet

Dr. Voelker said she found the research encouraging as omega-3 fatty acids “strike again.”

“We know that omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to have an effect on the heart, brain development in utero with babies, as well as we get older with cognitive impairments,” she explained. “And now there seems to be a link with improving hearing or at least stopping hearing loss.”

“The power of this study is that it is a large population,” Dr. Voelker added. “The weaknesses of this study are that it’s just self-reporting on people’s hearing loss. So whether there’s a direct link or not remains to be seen.”

For those looking to tap into the potential health benefits of omega-3s, Dr. Voelker said diet is the number one place to increase your omega-3 fatty acids intake.

Foods high in omega-3s include:

“In order to determine if there’s a strong link (between) omega-3 fatty acids and hearing loss, there needs to be a randomized control trial using omega-3 fatty acids (to look at) long-term hearing loss in very large populations,” Dr. Voelker added.

What’s next for omega-3 fatty acid research?

“This determination will require randomized, placebo-controlled, omega-3 intervention trials in humans,” he continued. “However, there is considerable evidence that high omega-3 status - low EPA+DHA concentrations - is associated with positive effects on brain, vision, and cardiovascular function. (The) risk of many chronic diseases, preterm birth, and all-cause mortality are associated with low omega-3 intake and status.”

“It is important to eat foods rich in EPA+DHA and/or use an omega-3 supplement,” Dr. McBurney added.

“I encourage measurement of blood EPA+DHA levels followed by dietary guidance, and change if needed, to achieve recommended EPA+DHA status.”

Dr. Eliott Kozin, a hearing loss specialist at Mass Eye and Ear who was not involved in this research, agreed further studies on this topic are needed.

“The current study examined a potential association between blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids and subjective hearing complaints. The current study shows a potential association and one cannot use it to say definitely that omega-3 fatty acid prevents hearing loss. There may be other untested factors that explain the findings. For example, those individuals with high omega-3 fatty acids could be more health conscious, and other variables may (be) directly linked to hearing health.”

- Dr. Eliott Kozin, hearing loss specialist

“Future high-prospective research is needed to better understand what impact diet has on our hearing health,” Dr. Kozin added. “The current study lends support for these types of high-quality nutrition-focused studies.”

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