OBJECTIVES: Age-related hearing loss is a common social and health problem in the older adult population. Up until now, very little scientific attention has been given to the potential role of fatty acids in age-related hearing loss. In this study we investigated whether plasma very long-chain n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) are associated with age-related hearing loss over three years.

DESIGN: Cross-sectional and 3-year longitudinal analyses.

SETTING: Wageningen, the Netherlands.

PARTICIPANTS: 720 men and postmenopausal women (50-70 years of age) without middle ear dysfunction or unilateral hearing loss.

MEASUREMENTS: Fatty acid proportions were measured in plasma cholesteryl esters. Hearing thresholds (in decibels, dB) at baseline and after three years were measured with pure-tone audiometry. Hearing loss was calculated as the increase in mean hearing thresholds in the low (0.5-kHz, 1-kHz, and 2-kHz) and high (4-kHz, 6-kHz, and 8-kHz) frequencies over three years.

RESULTS: Subjects in the highest quartile of plasma very long-chain n-3 PUFA had less hearing loss in the low frequencies over three years than subjects in the lowest quartile (p < 0.01, ANCOVA, difference in mean adjusted hearing thresholds= -1.2 dB). There were no significant differences between the quartiles of plasma very long-chain n-3 PUFA in hearing loss in the high frequencies (p=0.49, ANCOVA). These associations are adjusted for baseline mean hearing thresholds, age, sex, level of education and alcohol consumption.

CONCLUSION: This study is the first to show an inverse association between plasma very long-chain n-3 PUFAs and age-related hearing loss. These results are encouraging, but require confirmation from future studies.