Have you heard? Folic acid supplementation has the potential to minimize hearing loss in older adults.
There’s one thing that we all know: as we get older, hearing loss can become a major problem. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), around 314 in 1,000 people in the U.S. who are 65-plus years old have experienced hearing loss. When it comes to the over-75 age group, 40 to 50% have some loss of hearing. For many people, this means getting a hearing aid, but only one out of every five people who require one actually get one.
Hearing loss is a fairly natural process as we get up there in age, but it’s also influenced by genetics, other health problems, and noise. Researchers have discovered that the level of folate in your body could influence your hearing. For this reason, a research team in the Netherlands decided to test out whether or not supplementing with folic acid could slow down hearing loss in older adults.
>From September 2000 to December 2004, the researchers conducted a double-blind, randomized, and placebo- controlled study. They looked at 728 older men and women, aged 50 to 70, who had higher levels of homocysteine and lower levels of vitamin B12 in their blood, plus who had ear or hearing conditions not related to the natural aging process.
Let’s pause here for a couple of definitions. “Folate” is a natural B vitamin that comes from foods such as beef liver, spinach, oranges, dried peas, and peanuts. When created artificially and made into supplements or added into foods, it’s called “folic acid.” Folate is extremely important in the production and upkeep of new cells — that’s why it’s touted as an absolutely necessary nutrient for pregnant women.
In all people, it’s been found to play an essential role in preventing anemia while metabolizing and controlling homocysteine in the body. “Homocysteine” is an amino acid found in your body’s bloodstream. High levels of this substance have been linked to many diseases, including heart disease and hearing problems. Because of the health benefits of folate, the FDA now requires folic acid to be added to grain products such as bread, cereal, and pasta.
Okay, so back to the Dutch study. The trial participants were either given 800 micrograms of folic acid every day or placebo. As mentioned, this study lasted three years. The researchers were basically looking for changes in the hearing thresholds of the study subjects, in the low and high frequencies. Note that human speech is in the lower frequency range.
At the outset of the study, the average low-frequency threshold for hearing was 11.7 decibels (dB) and the average high-frequency threshold was 34.2 dB. At the end of the three years, the people in the placebo group had an increase in their low-frequency threshold of 1.7 dB, while the people on folic acid had a 1.0 increase. This means that hearing loss in the low-frequency range slowed down in the patients supplementing with folic acid, which is great! However, the supplementation did not seem to affect hearing loss in the high-frequency range.
Note that there are a couple of reasons for why this study should be taken with a grain of salt. First, because the study participants were limited to people with higher homocysteine levels, these findings cannot apply to the general population. Moreover, the Netherlands does not have regulations in place to promote the folic acid fortification of food like we do here; in fact, the addition of the substance to food products was prohibited at the time.
Therefore, the levels of folate in the bodies of these study participants would be much lower than if they were U.S. citizens. So, a U.S. study must be done to see whether folic acid supplementation could have any affect on the hearing loss of older people living in this country.
If you think you’re suffering from hearing loss, whether it’s mild or more severe, it’s important to talk to your health care practitioner, as it can progress. Moreover, there are things they can do to help. Whether it’s addressing the actual source of your hearing loss (some diseases can be the hidden cause), providing hearing aids and other devices, considering surgery, or simply looking at diet and supplementation, there are many possible solutions.