Kent Taylor, the 65-year-old CEO of Texas Roadhouse, lost his life to suicide. He had been suffering from severe post-Covid-19 symptoms, the most notable being tinnitus, or ringing in the ear.
As we are just into year two of the Covid-19 pandemic, we are learning more and more about lingering symptoms following acute disease recovery. Many symptoms involve the cranial nerves, including the nerve for sense of smell (olfactory nerve) leading to anosmia, as well as the nerve for hearing (acoustic nerve), leading to hearing loss, dizziness, or tinnitus. Many of these issues are transient, but some may last indefinitely. Patients with anosmia, or loss of smell, can develop an entity called dysosmia, whereby everything smells terrible. Hearing loss and tinnitus, or ringing in the ear, can be either transient or can progress to a relentless, distressing ear buzz.
Tinnitus is an entity where the sufferer hears sounds that are not perceived externally. It can be a high-pitched piercing like a siren, it can sound like ocean waves, or it can be pulsatile with a beat, giving the sensation of hearing one’s heartbeat in the ear. Many who suffer from tinnitus note the sensation in a quiet room, when trying to sleep, and many describe that the sensation occurs sporadically. It is often associated with hearing loss, or it can be due to certain medications or, very rarely, from tumors or blood vessel abnormalities in the ear. It can be associated with depression and anxiety, where 0.5% of tinnitus sufferers are no longer able to live a normal life. While tinnitus, depression, and anxiety are three independent conditions, they have been found to be linked as comorbidities in several large reviews.
There are no definitive treatments for tinnitus, but some have found symptom relief by using white noise machines, ‘tinnitus-masking’ hearing aids, or relaxation exercises. When a specific cause such as a tumor is treated, this may relieve tinnitus, although tumors causing tinnitus are quite rare.
Patients with severe tinnitus may have an increased risk of suicidal thoughts. One study published in Clinical Otolaryngology in 2015 reported increased suicidal ideation in patients suffering from distressing levels of tinnitus. The authors emphasized the importance of screening patients with tinnitus for mental health issues, and specifically suicidal thoughts. A JAMA Otolaryngology study published in 2019 evaluated over 70,000 individuals, and found only a slight increase in suicidal behaviors in women, but not in men.
Kent Taylor’s family reported that he had recently committed to funding a clinical study of military members suffering from tinnitus. Military personnel suffer from tinnitus due to chronic noise exposure from sources such as gunfire, aircraft, and machinery. It is one of the most common disabilities incurred by individuals in the military. Currently it is estimated that over 1.5 million military veterans suffer from tinnitus.
As we get further and further into the post-Covid-19 sequelae of the millions who have recovered, we are likely to see more distressing symptoms such as tinnitus and dysosmia. Vigilance and screening of those suffering from such life-altering symptoms needs to be carefully identified and addressed.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 1-800-273-8255