Illustration of a bowl of salad and a human ear, with a sound wave between them

About 44 million American adults have hearing loss, and that number is expected to almost double to 73 million by 2060. It’s no surprise that minimizing exposure to high-decibel noise protects your ears. But recent and accumulating research indicates that following a healthy diet may be another way to prevent hearing loss.

“It’s clear now that diet is a factor, along with other issues such as noise pollution, age, certain types of medications, and even certain medical conditions such as diabetes,” says Enrique Perez, MD, an otolaryngologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

In a 2020 review of 22 studies, researchers in Spain found evidence linking fruits and vegetables, omega-3 fatty acids, and antioxidant nutrients, such as vitamins A, C, and E to a lower risk of developing age-related hearing loss. Other research shows that people who ate fish two to four times a week had about a 20 percent less chance of hearing problems and that getting too little folate—less than 200 mg per day—raised the risk.

More on Hearing

But rather than focusing on specific foods or nutrients, many experts say it’s the quality of your overall diet that’s most important for healthy hearing.

For example, in one 2018 study involving more than 81,000 women, those whose diets most closely matched one of three healthy eating patterns—the alternate Mediterranean diet (AMED), the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH), and the 2010 Alternative Healthy Eating Index (AHEI-2010)—had a 30 percent lower risk of developing hearing loss over the 22-year study period. (The women were ages 27 to 44 at the start of the study.) Another study of more than 3,000 women published in 2020 in the American Journal of Epidemiology found similar results.

How What You Eat Affects Your Ears

There are several reasons why a healthy diet may be protective against hearing loss, says Sharon Curhan, MD, a physician and epidemiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston who was the lead author on both studies.

Just as it is for the rest of your body, adequate blood flow is key for proper ear function. A healthy diet can help enhance this by improving cholesterol and lowering blood pressure. Eating a healthy diet can also provide protection against oxidative damage and reduce inflammation.

There’s evidence, too, of a connection between hearing loss and type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure—conditions where the quality of the foods you eat greatly contributes to risk, says Erika Woodson, MD, an otolaryngologist at the Cleveland Clinic.

“The inner ear is very similar to both the kidneys and the eyes in the sense that its health is dependent on the tiniest of blood vessels,” she says. “We know that type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure cause damage to these tiny blood vessels and affect both your kidneys and eyes. Few people know that the same organ damage occurs in your ears.” A poor diet and sedentary lifestyle, she adds, can raise the risk of you developing either of these two conditions, which then causes tightening of your arteries, impeding blood flow everywhere—including to your ears.

The Best Diet for Your Ears

I tell all my patients with hearing loss to follow a heart-healthy diet,” Woodson says. “If it’s good for your heart, it’s going to be good for your ears, as well.”

Heart-healthy eating patterns, including the three approaches used in Curhan’s studies, are mostly centered on lots of high-quality plant-based foods and low amounts of animal-based foods, refined grains, added sugars, and unhealthy fats. To make it easy, Curhan recommends at each meal filling half your plate with fruits and veggies (but limiting starchy ones, like potatoes). The other half should be made up of whole grains and plant-based protein, such as tofu, lentils, or nuts most days, with fish and modest amounts lean meat, and poultry less often. Unsaturated oils such as olive or vegetable oils can also be used.  

In general, to maintain healthy hearing, it’s best to focus on getting most of the key hearing nutrients through food sources rather than supplements, Woodson says. “Nutritional supplements do not play a role in hearing health.”

Other Ways to Protect Your Hearing

Of course, eating healthfully won’t counter the effects of other ear-damaging factors, says Woodson. Frequent exposure to noise, even moderately loud such as a lawn mower or motorcycle engine, can harm hearing depending on how long you’re around it. And loud sporting events or concerts have the potential to damage ears in 15 minutes. Wearing comfortable, well-fitting ear plugs or ear muffs in such situations is essential. 

Don’t smoke, which a 2019 study suggests can raise risk of hearing loss. It’s also important to stay active: A 2014 Johns Hopkins study found a link between low levels of physical activity and hearing loss.

And if you notice signs of hearing loss—for example, difficulty understanding words, especially against background noise, frequently asking others to speak up, and listening to the TV at full blast—see an audiologist promptly to get your hearing tested, Mount Sinai’s Perez says. “The faster you get hearing loss diagnosed, the faster we can move to rehabilitate it and possibly prevent it from progressing.”