Does omega-3 help ears?

As we journey through life, the effectiveness of our senses can undergo changes, with vision, hearing, and taste sometimes fading with the passage of time.

A growing body of research underscores that the prevalence of hearing loss escalates as we age. In the United States, statistics reveal that around 25% of individuals aged 65 to 74 experience disabling hearing loss, a proportion that almost doubles for adults aged 75 and above.

Though the progression of age-related hearing loss remains unstoppable, individuals can take proactive measures to safeguard their auditory capabilities. Such strategies include steering clear of loud environments and utilizing hearing protection when exposed to high-decibel surroundings.

Exciting new findings, presented at NUTRITION 2023, the flagship annual conference of the American Society for Nutrition, shed light on a potential connection between omega-3 fatty acids and age-related hearing issues. Researchers from the University of Guelph and Tufts University/Fatty Acid Research Institute have uncovered evidence indicating that middle-aged and older adults boasting higher levels of the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) exhibit a reduced likelihood, ranging from 8% to 20%, of reporting age-related hearing problems when compared to their counterparts with lower DHA levels.

The Question: How Do Omega-3s Influence Hearing Loss? Dr. Michael I. McBurney, the lead author of the study and a senior scientist at the Fatty Acid Research Institute, along with 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, shared with Medical News Today the motivation behind their investigation into the impact of omega-3s on age-related hearing issues. Inspired by observations in animals indicating that maternal omega-3 intake during pregnancy affected offspring hearing development and influenced cochlear metabolism, the researchers embarked on this study. Notably, higher consumption of fish and omega-3s in humans had also been inversely associated with age-related hearing loss.

Driven by these intriguing cues, the researchers delved into the connection between plasma omega-3 levels and self-reported hearing loss, drawing upon the extensive UK Biobank cohort, a large cross-sectional study.

Unveiling Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Omega-3 fatty acids, commonly recognized as “good” fats, play a crucial role in various bodily functions, earning them the designation of “essential” fats. Comprising three key types, these acids contribute to cell membrane health, hormone production for blood clotting and arterial function, and genetic regulation. Recent years have witnessed extensive research into omega-3 fatty acids, highlighting their potential benefits in reducing inflammation, enhancing eye health, and protecting against age-related neurodegeneration. Additionally, prior studies have suggested their potential in mitigating conditions such as cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis, autoimmune disorders, depression, and specific cancers. Since the body cannot produce omega-3 fatty acids independently, they must be obtained through dietary sources rich in these nutrients or via supplements.

Insights from an Extensive Study on DHA and Hearing Loss: The researchers meticulously examined data from the UK Biobank, scrutinizing self-reported hearing status and blood DHA levels from over 100,000 individuals aged 40 to 69. Their analysis unveiled compelling trends: participants with the highest blood DHA levels were 16% less likely to acknowledge difficulty hearing and 11% less likely to experience challenges in following conversations amidst background noise compared to those with lower DHA levels. Overall, this investigation found that middle-aged and older adults sporting elevated DHA levels displayed an 8-20% reduced likelihood of encountering age-related hearing complications compared to their counterparts with lower DHA levels. The robustness of these associations remained even after accounting for socioeconomic factors, behavioral characteristics, and inflammation markers.

A Call for Future Exploration: Dr. McBurney underscored that while this study provides valuable insights, it does not definitively establish a causal link between low omega-3 status and hearing loss. The need for randomized, placebo-controlled intervention trials in humans persists to validate such a connection. Yet, a wealth of evidence suggests that maintaining high omega-3 status could potentially yield favorable effects on brain, vision, cardiovascular function, and overall health. Dr. Eliott Kozin, a hearing loss specialist not involved in the study, echoed the call for further research, emphasizing the importance of rigorous prospective studies to unravel the intricate relationship between diet and hearing health.

Pioneering Positive Impacts of Omega-3s: Dr. Courtney Voelker, a board-certified neurotologist, and director of the Adult & Pediatric Cochlear Implant Program, weighed in on the study’s significance. She highlighted the potential of omega-3 fatty acids, which have demonstrated impacts on heart health, brain development, and cognitive well-being. However, she also pointed out the need for more concrete evidence through robust trials to establish a direct link between omega-3 fatty acids and hearing preservation or improvement.

For those eager to tap into the potential health benefits of omega-3s, Dr. Voelker emphasized that dietary adjustments are a prime avenue for boosting omega-3 intake. In addition to seafood like mackerel, salmon, and oysters, sources like flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts, and soybeans offer valuable reservoirs of these essential fatty acids.

While the study underscores a promising association between omega-3 fatty acids and hearing health, it invites further investigation into the nuanced interplay between these nutrients and auditory well-being. The pathway to comprehensive understanding necessitates continued exploration and the rigor of large-scale intervention trials.

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