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Nutrition for your ears

I'm a fortunate 43-year-old to have a pair of grandparents still alive. My mom's folks are over 90 and just had their 70th anniversary. They've been through a lot.

My grandfather, Harry, was an upper-turret gunner on a B-17 bomber in World War II. His plane was shot down and crash-landed in Germany, and a couple of lucky breaks enabled him to get surgery on his shrapnel-wounded leg rather than have it amputated. He was in Stalag 17, a prisoner-of-war camp, for almost a year before he was repatriated.

After the war, Harry worked in the embroidery industry for more than 60 years, initially operating machines that stitched textiles, then running a business and selling his designs. Probably through a combination of working with guns, planes and loud machines, his hearing has steadily worsened. When I visited him and my grandmother in the winter and we watched television, I was tempted to put in earplugs but put up with the volume instead.

Both my grandfather and father have hearing loss that they haven't done anything in particular to address, though they both take some dietary supplements that may slow its progression.

They're not alone.

Hearing loss is a disability that goes untreated in 85 percent of those affected. It's not surprising that such a small number of people treat loss of this vital sense because it's a gradually worsening problem that can take decades to reach the front burner as a major nuisance or real health concern. Unfortunately, potential problems associated with hearing loss go far beyond mere inconvenience.

A recent Johns Hopkins study of hundreds of older adults with impaired hearing found a direct correlation between the degree of hearing loss and risk of Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia. Hearing loss can lead to social isolation, depression and unintentional reallocation of brain resources at the expense of other functions, leading to a depletion of "cognitive reserve."

Withdrawal from social engagements and increased isolation are among the more significant obstacles to health in older adults, so hearing loss is increasingly viewed as a serious health issue.

Fortunately, we can take steps through diet, nutrition and herbal supplementation to reduce the risks and maintain hearing.

Various B vitamins are associated with perpetuating good hearing, including B12, folate and niacin. Frequently deficient in older Americans, all these nutrients help maintain healthy levels of homocysteine, elevations of which are associated with hearing loss and cardiovascular disease.

Zinc is a trace mineral often deficient in older individuals with hearing loss. Studies show that zinc status correlates with hearing preservation, potentially due to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant actions. Zinc possesses such a wide array of activity in the body that many health problems may at least in some way be associated with its deficiency.

Various medicinal herbs and other vitamins and minerals may help with hearing preservation, especially with regard to enhancing circulation and helping mitigate abnormal bone growth of the middle ear known as otosclerosis.

Avoiding loud sounds is important. Encourage kids not to listen through ear buds at high volume and to use ear protection — even inexpensive, foam earplugs — when appropriate.

Also, there is evidence that commonly used pain relievers, including aspirin, ibuprofen and acetaminophen, are associated with hearing loss. Finding alternatives for pain control is increasingly important for a number of reasons, including the potential for addiction to stronger narcotics and liver toxicity from acetaminophen.

If you're among the millions of people with progressive hearing loss, you may not make a mountain of it now, but it's quite possible you've gotten an earful already from your loved ones to do something about it.

Michael Altman is a nutritionist at Ventana Wellness and teaches at Southern Oregon University. Email him at altmanm@sou.edu.