At first glance, hearing impairment and heart disease seem to have very little in common. However, the relationship has been hypothesized since the 1960’s, and more recently has been established in epidemiologic studies – with a particular emphasis on heart failure. For example, a recent study by Sterling et al. examined patients in the cross-sectional NHANES Survey aged ≥70 years with a diagnosis of heart failure. The authors described the percentage with quantifiable hearing loss based on pure-tone audiometry (considered the gold standard test).
The main findings: 74% of patients with heart failure had some degree of hearing loss, which was significantly higher than those without heart failure (63%). Further, only 16% of heart failure patients wore hearing aids. Thus there was a disconnect between the burden of hearing loss, and use of a strategy (hearing aids) with proven effectiveness.
Why does this matter? According to the authors: “since patients with HF [heart failure] are frequently in noisy hospitals and clinics where they receive myriad instructions about disease management, it seems likely that untreated hearing loss could impair patient-physician communication and ultimately HF self-care.” After my recent two weeks attending on the inpatient cardiology service, I concur. We are constantly expecting our patients to provide us an accurate history, comprehend diagnostic test results, and adhere to discharge plans, all of which may be affected by hearing impairment.
What are the solutions? The first is to increase identification of hearing impairment through screening – and with advances in technology, I’d predict this can soon be easily done at the bedside with portable electronic devices. The second is to make hearing aids more accessible, including over-the-counter purchases – and recently there has been some notable advocacy work advancing laws to increase access. Through these two simple strategies, we may be able to make meaningful improvements in the health of our older cardiac patients.