Hearing loss can be insidious, slowly occurring over time without us even knowing. You use an alarm to wake up each morning, blast tunes on your commute to the office, and field calls between queries from your coworkers. But when was the last time you gave any thought to your ears, or more specifically, your hearing? The ears can seem pretty low maintenance compared to other body parts, unless you suffer from hearing loss or frequent ear aches. Too often we take our hearing for granted, believing it’ll never change. Until it does. Aging and chronic exposure to loud noises both contribute to hearing loss. And once it’s lost we’re left with trying to take steps to improve what’s left. Educate children and teenagers. Most have no idea that once hearing damage happens, it’s irreversible. It’s important to prevent hearing loss from occurring in the first place.
Of all the components of our health that we work to improve and protect, hearing may be close to the bottom of the list for many. But, why? Imagine going through an entire day without being able to hear the birds chirping, a fire crackling, friends laughing, a ball game or even carry on a simple conversation? Going through life experiencing constant ringing, whistling, buzzing, or humming (Tinnitus), or not having hearing at all. It would be life changing. Especially when the majority of issues are preventable.
Even moderately loud sound can cause hearing damage if you listen for too long. For example, listening to a 90-decibel sound for three hours can be as damaging as hearing a 155 decibel-sound (like a jet taking off) for just thirty seconds. To put this in perspective most smart phones and iPads can generate 100 decibels- that is the equivalent of attending a rock concert. The louder the sound, the faster hearing damage occurs, even in young adults.
Hearing loss of some degree is a reality for many people. In fact, it is one of the most common work-related illnesses in the United States, and up to 39% of people in their sixties experience hearing problems.
Too often this can be isolating and a reason why they aren’t interacting as much. My grandfather had poor hearing, even with his hearing aids. Rather than explain us grandchildren needed to speak up or get closer, he just stopped asking and withdrew. As kids we just thought he was “off.” It wasn’t until I became an adult that he admitted the truth and I realized how debilitating it had been for him. If someone you know or love isn’t engaging, get their hearing tested. It may be a component.
According to a National Health and Nutrition Survey, about 70% of people exposed to loud noise never or seldom wear hearing protection. Part of the issue is also that sometimes people don’t consider certain activities as loud, but not being aware of the actual damage to our hearing can be detrimental. The CDC provides these great tools to help you gauge how loud some activities really are.
To protect your hearing, here are a few things to consider:
- Get a baseline hearing test: At your annual physical, request a hearing test so your provider can establish a baseline for your hearing. In the event of changes to your hearing, early detection can make a difference in diminishing future losses.
- Protect your ears: Wear protective gear when you know you’ll be around loud environments like sports games, concerts, construction, yard work with leaf blowers, etc. You can pick up ear plugs or protective head phones at a many stores, or order them online; speak to your provider or audiologist for what they specifically recommend.
- Turn down the volume: When watching TV or listening to music over speakers, have the volume up loud enough to enjoy the sound, but not so loud that it can be heard in other rooms. Often, people turn up the sound when watching shows or movies on the television because the audio isn’t clear (or sometimes the sound fluctuates between dialogue and action scenes, for example). Try turning on the captions so you can follow the story line without cranking up the sound unnecessarily.
Ear buds are great for privacy but can be hard on the ears if turned up too loud. Earbuds and headphones sit in or close to the ear canal, which places sound very close to the inner ear. This proximity has the effect of boosting sound by an equivalent of nine decibels. That’s like going from a tinkling bell to the drone of a lawn mower. Ear buds and headphones can contribute to hearing loss even if you listen to them for just 15 minutes a day, if the volume is at or above 85 decibels. Also, many people boost the volume to block out background noise. These days, many people wear earbuds for hours on end. Even moderately loud sound can cause hearing damage if you listen for too long. Remember what I said earlier- listening to a 90-decibel sound for three hours can be as damaging as hearing a 155 decibel-sound (like a jet taking off) for just thirty seconds.
If you opt for ear buds or head phones:
- Remember the 60/60 rule; listen at 60% of the volume just 60 minutes a day.
- Even better, keep the volume below 50%
- If you prefer in-canal earbuds, make sure they fit tightly to block out more background noise.
- Choose earmuff-style “noise-cancelling” headphones to reduce or eliminate background noise.
- Invest in “custom” earbuds made from a replica of your ear canal. Tailored to your anatomy, custom earbuds block out the most background noise so you can listen at safer volumes. Custom earbuds also deliver the best sound quality.
Hearing health, just as with most aspects of our overall wellness, can be helped with a well rounded diet. A few vitamins and minerals that can contribute to your hearing health are: magnesium, potassium, zinc, and vitamins A C and D.
A few steps towards preventing hearing loss in addition to a healthy diet can help keep your hearing as sound (pun intended!) as possible.