by Carole Jackson, Bottom Line Health
I know lots of people who complain that they donât hear as well as they used to — and plenty of others who make similar complaints about their loved ones. When my ears were ringing and I couldnât hear so well in the days after I took my teenage daughter to a concert, I found myself wondering whether getting older makes us more vulnerable to hearing loss caused by loud noise.
Interestingly, a new study in the American Journal of Epidemiology reported that adults today are actually 31% less likely to suffer hearing loss than the previous generation. This seems to be the result of environmental and not physical causes. Researchers speculate that the reasons relate to workplace trends (fewer people work in factory settings with loud industrial noise, and even those who do are protected by health and safety regulations requiring noise abatement and earplugs) and medical advances (in particular, the fact that antibiotics now treat many illnesses and infections that previously resulted in hearing damage).
But the news wasnât all good. About 15% of all adults between age 20 and 69 have already suffered some hearing loss specifically from exposure to loud noise, according to the latest statistics from the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.
That figure came as no surprise to Aaron G. Benson, MD, a neurotologist in private practice in Toledo and clinical professor of neurotology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Life is loud, he pointed out, even beyond concerts and (as Iâm constantly reminding my daughters) in-ear headphones. Dr. Benson rattled off a bunch of examples of noisy assaults we suffer, including sirens, motorcycles and other traffic sounds, lawn mowers, leaf- and snowblowers, hair dryers and vacuum cleaners.
According to Dr. Benson, single explosive sounds and ongoing ambient noise both can be damaging — how much so relates to both the decibel level and length of exposure. For example, youâll likely experience some hearing loss after eight hours of exposure at 90 decibels (which is the decibel level of a train whistle or trucks on the highway). As the noise gets louder, the damage happens faster, though genetics are a factor in how much noise exposure you can tolerate without damage.
HOW HEARING LOSS HAPPENS
Dr. Benson explained that loud noise is destructive to the tiny hair cells in your ear that convert sound into electrical signals for the brain. The more of these cells that get destroyed over time, the worse your hearing.
Some suggestions on how to protect yourself by turning down the volume in your life…
â¢ Turn down iPods, Bluetooth receivers and other in-ear listening devices. Dr. Benson suggests finding a quiet spot where you can test the volume range at which you can hear comfortably. Use a permanent marker to identify this particular spot on your deviceâs controls, and avoid turning the volume up any higher.
â¢ When you listen to music, talk on the phone or watch television, donât use a headset or earbuds all the time. Varying the way sound comes into your ears helps protect your hearing, so use your speakers some times — at a moderate level.
â¢ Consider using noise-canceling earphones if you know that youâll be spending time in a loud environment, for instance on an airplane or at a racetrack.
â¢ Buy quieter consumer goods. Check out Noise Free Americaâs site, www.NoiseFree.org/quietproducts.php.
â¢ Studies suggest that antioxidants such as magnesium or vitamins A, C and E, if taken prior to noise trauma, may provide some protection. (See Daily Health News, “Everyday Vitamins May Prevent Common Hearing Loss,” January 1, 2008, for more about this.) Check with your doctor first for information about proper dosage and drug interactions.
As can happen after a random exposure, my hearing returned to normal — for which I am thankful. However, Dr. Benson told me that cumulative damage, the kind thatâs done over years of exposure to loud sounds, canât be reversed. Clearly, it makes sense to do all that you can to protect the hearing you still have.
Aaron G. Benson, MD, clinical adjunct professor, division of neurotology, department of otolaryngology head and neck surgery, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is in private practice in Toledo.