Hearing loss today is one of the biggest health problems affecting people across the globe. Untreated hearing loss has been linked to earlier onset of cognitive decline, depression, social isolation, negative health outcomes and generally a poorer subjective sense of well-being on the part of those who have it.
While hearing aids are the most common and most effective treatment for hearing loss today, prevention is an equally important part of maintaining our hearing health. Not all forms of hearing loss are preventable, but noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is one type of hearing loss that can be avoided by the use of caution and hearing protection.
October is Protect Your Hearing Month, so let’s take a look at NIHL and what we can do to prevent it in our daily lives.
Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) Is On the Rise
After declining in prevalence in the early part of the new millennium, NIHL is on the rise again today. While 10% of Millennials have hearing loss, about 17% of Gen-Z’ers have it. This is especially troubling considering that Gen-Z is the younger generation.
It is not known exactly why more young people are incurring NIHL, but there are some likely culprits. Personal listening devices (PLDs) are louder than ever, and listening at high volumes can cause hearing loss in a very short amount of time. PA systems are also more efficient these days, meaning that a smaller system can produce more sound than a much larger one that was manufactured a few decades ago. Putting louder sound systems in smaller spaces may be contributing to the increase in NIHL.
There are two factors that contribute to the potential damage that sound can cause to our ears. One is loudness, and the other is duration. A catastrophically loud sound can cause deafness in an instant, while moderately loud sounds can cause permanent hearing loss after a certain time of exposure.
Sound levels as low as 85 dBA (decibels A-weighted) can cause hearing loss after about 8 hours of continuous exposure. 85 dBA is about the volume level you experience while operating a gas-powered lawn mower or a leaf blower. The longer we hear the sound past the safe time of exposure, the more hearing loss we will incur.
For each additional 3 dBA of volume, the safe time of exposure is cut in half. That means by the time the volume level reaches 100 dBA (about the volume at a high school dance, or while you ride a motorcycle) it only takes 15 minutes to cause permanent hearing loss. At 110 dBA (the volume level at a rock concert), it only takes 2 minutes.
Protect Your Hearing!
NIHL is an avoidable type of hearing loss that can cause problems for people at an early age. And NIHL is not an either/or proposition when it comes to age-related hearing loss. Many people who have NIHL at a young age will also live to experience age-related hearing loss, making their hearing loss in later life more severe than it would otherwise have been.
The best course of action is to carry a set of earplugs with you. If you encounter an unsafe sonic environment, put in your earplugs and be sure that you won’t be permanently harmed by the sound. There are many types of earplugs to choose from, ranging from cheap disposables costing about $1.00 per pair to custom-molded earplugs in the $300 range. They are all effective at attenuating loud sound, and the type you choose will have to do with how often you find yourself exposed to dangerous sound levels, and the kinds of activities you engage in.
If you’re unsure of whether an environment is too loud, you can download an SPL (sound pressure level) meter app for your smartphone. These apps will give you an estimate of the average sound level in a given space. If it reads 85 dBA or higher, put in your earplugs or move away from the sound.
Remember that even emergency vehicles driving by could cause hearing loss. If you encounter a momentary loud sound, cover your ears with your hands!
NIHL and Personal Listening Devices (PLDs)
PLDs are likely one of the biggest causes of NIHL among young people today. If you use PLDs, be sure to keep the volume set just loud enough that you can hear the content. It’s easy to accidentally blast ourselves with too much sound through headphones, so always try to turn the volume down. You might realize you were listening much louder than necessary.
If you spend time with PLDs on trains, planes, busses, etc., it may be worth investing in noise-canceling headphones. These devices will actively limit the kind of consistent noise that engines produce, allowing you to set the volume on your PLD lower than if you had to defeat this noise in order to hear clearly.
Remember to protect your hearing, this month and every month! If you are interested in custom hearing protection, make an appointment for a hearing test and find out if custom earplugs are right for you! And if you do have hearing loss, hearing aids are the best thing you can do for yourself to maintain your best health and well-being.