Eat Right for Better Hearing, Vision, and Teeth

The foods that can really help—and those to skip

illustration of graphic face with fruits and vegetables in background Illustration: Rob Wilson

You’re probably aware that, for better or worse, what you eat can affect your risk for conditions like high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. But the same kind of diet that’s good for your brain, heart, and lungs—rich in fruits, veggies, lean protein, grains, and healthy fats—also helps hearing, vision, and dental health, says Libby Mills, MS, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “This type of eating pattern is not just rich in antioxidants that can help keep ears, eyes, and teeth healthy,” she says, “it also reduces inflammation in the body that can worsen gum disease and vision and hearing problems.” Adding certain foods into an overall healthy diet may be even more beneficial. Here’s what the research suggests.

Hearing Helpers

Women who followed one of three eating patterns—the alternate Mediterranean diet, the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, and the 2010 Alternative Healthy Eating Index—had about a 30 percent lower risk of hearing loss. That’s according to a 22-year study published in 2018 in the Journal of Nutrition. Though the diets have some differences, “they all emphasize higher intakes of fruits and vegetables, and lower intakes of sodium, added sugars, and saturated fat,” says Sharon Curhan, MD, director of the Conservation of Hearing Study at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. And all contain plenty of beta-carotene, folate, and omega-3 fatty acids, which seem to be particularly hearing-protective, she says.

More on Hearing, Teeth, and Vision

Those eating plans may help in part by promoting blood flow to the inner ear’s cochlea, whose tiny hair cells transmit “messages” that the brain interprets as sound. They may help protect against age-related declines in cochlear function, too.

Such diets also limit starchy carbohydrates—such as white rice, potatoes, and pastas—and added sugars, says Christopher Spankovich, AuD, PhD, director of clinical research in the department of otolaryngology and communicative sciences at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. “These types of foods raise blood glucose levels,” he says, “and we know that type 2 diabetes (which is marked by uncontrolled blood glucose) can also impact hearing because it damages the tiny blood vessels in the ears.”

To follow a hearing-healthy diet easily, fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables, Curhan says, especially those rich in beta-carotene or folate: dark orange produce such as carrots or cantaloupe and leafy greens like arugula, kale, and spinach.

At least a quarter of the plate should contain protein, Spankovich says. (Many older people don’t get enough. Aim for at least 0.36 gram of protein per pound of body weight a day, about 54 grams for a 150-pound person.) An analysis published in 2020 in the journal Ear and Hearing found that sufficient protein reduced the risk of tinnitus, a ringing in the ears that may be a sign of hearing loss. Curhan’s research also suggests that eating fish, which has omega-3s, at least twice a week is helpful for hearing.

Smile Savers

The American Dental Association (ADA) recommends following the MyPlate guidelines from the Department of Agriculture. So for dental health, too, produce should make up half your meal. Along with plenty of vitamin C (good for gum health) and vitamin A (it helps rebuild tooth enamel), fruits and vegetables contain water and fiber. Both keep the mouth moist, water directly and fiber because chewing it stimulates saliva production. “Saliva washes harmful acids from food away from your teeth, which protects them against decay,” says Ruchi Sahota, DDS, an ADA spokesperson.

On the protein front, strive to get at least half from lean meat, poultry, fish, and eggs, says Mark Wolff, DDS, dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine. All are rich in phosphorus, a mineral that protects and rebuilds tooth enamel. Adults ages 60 and older also need three daily cups of dairy. It’s high in calcium, another mineral that’s good for tooth enamel.

Limit saturated fat (found in red meat and full-fat dairy) and processed meat (think bacon, sausage, hot dogs). A study published in 2021 in the British Journal of Nutrition found that a diet low in produce and high in saturated fat and processed meats was associated with tooth loss, dry mouth, and gum disease in older age.

For the final quarter of your plate, focus on whole grains (oatmeal, brown rice). Processed grains (white bread, white rice, pasta) “are higher in sugar, which the bacteria in your mouth feed on,” Wolff says, contributing to decay.

Strategies for Sight

“When I think about older adults and nutrition, I divide it into two categories: the cornea, which is the surface of the eye and the window we look through, and the retina, which is in the back of the eye and essentially works as the film of a camera to receive images,” says Michelle Andreoli, MD, clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. “In order for both to work optimally, you need good nutrition for both.”

So, in addition to an overall healthy diet, Andreoli advises drinking at least 64 ounces of water daily. Good hydration is key for dry eye, a cornea-related condition common with age. “If the surface of your eye isn’t well-hydrated, the optics get lousy, kind of like mud on a windshield,” she says.

Omega-3s may help protect against dry eye, too, as well as age-related macular degeneration (AMD), which impairs vision in the center of the retina. So Andreoli recommends dining on fish at least twice a week, just as other experts advise for hearing.

And of the five to nine recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables, Andreoli suggests making about half of them dark in color, such as blackberries, kale, raspberries, and spinach. “These are all rich in lutein and zeaxanthin, two nutrients that protect your macula,” she says.

3 More Smart Moves

1. Get needed screenings. The American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) advises that adults ages 65 and older see an ophthalmologist for a complete eye exam every one to two years. There’s no official recommendation on dental screenings, but because cavity-contributing conditions like dry mouth are more common with age, every six months is reasonable, says Ruchi Sahota, DDS. For hearing checks, a good rule of thumb is every three years, and more often if you notice any problems, says Christopher Spankovich, AuD, of the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

2. Limit alcohol. It causes dehydration and dry mouth, which can lead to tooth decay and gum disease. And though less than four weekly drinks has been shown to slightly reduce the likelihood of cataract surgery, daily drinking can raise it, according to a study published in 2021 in the journal Ophthalmology. One study has also linked heavy drinking to hearing loss.

3. Stay at a healthy weight. Research suggests that overweight or obese people may be more likely to have gum disease or hearing loss. And obesity has been linked to a higher risk of cataracts, glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration, and diabetic retinopathy, says Michelle Andreoli, MD, clinical spokesperson for the AAO.

Editor’s Note: A version of this article also appeared in the October 2021 issue of Consumer Reports On Health

Hallie Levine

Hallie Levine is an award-winning magazine and freelance writer who contributes to Consumer Reports on health and fitness topics. Her work has been published in Health, Prevention, Reader's Digest, and Parents, among others. She's a mom to three kids and a fat but feisty black Labrador retriever named Ivry. In her (nonexistent) spare time, she likes to read, swim, and run marathons.