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Healthy Aging

What Did You Say?

By Sheryl Kraft

Created: 04/08/2011
Last Updated: 08/13/2012

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When I was a teenager, I went to lots of rock concerts. I started young; in fact it was my mother who took me to my first concert (I'm dating myself, but I think it was Paul Revere and the Raiders). But she didn't go in with me—she dropped my friend and I off in front, declaring the concert too loud, and waited in the parking lot. I thought that a bit odd at the time, although I didn't really mind too much since it gave me a feeling of independence.

And I continued to go to rock concerts, eventually without needing transportation from my mother. I remember alternately hating/loving the feeling of walking out with my ears ringing. I mean, it was exciting at first, in that it meant that the music was really, really good (or did it?). But then, hours later, the ringing that persisted got to be a bit of an annoyance.

A few years ago my husband and some friends got Bruce Springsteen tickets. We sat fairly close to the stage and you know what? (Before I tell you, if you are a Springsteen fan, please promise you won't blacklist me.) I was my mother. I walked out, unable to tolerate the painful ringing in my ears.

And then I spotted a security guard walking around the lobby with neon green rubber peaking out of each ear. "Hey, are those EARPLUGS?" I asked, hoping for the right answer. "Yeah," he said. And then he reached deep into his pocket and pressed a pair into my hand. "These are my last pair," he said solemnly, and then walked away before I could thank him.

Risking derision from my husband and friends, I decided it was more important to protect my hearing than my ego. I put the earplugs in, hoping that my hair would disguise the fact that I was actually wearing earplugs at a Springsteen concert. But wouldn't you know the minute I got back, my new look garnered some good-natured ribbing.

I'm hardly alone. More than 31 million Americans have some degree of hearing loss. That's about one in 10. And the numbers are bound to grow, since many of these are like me—baby boomers. Two out of three are below retirement age. According to a survey by the Better Hearing Institute, about 15 percent of Americans between 46 and 64 have hearing problems. Yet only about one in five people who could benefit from hearing devices actually wear them.

Unlike eyeglasses, which can be so fashionable and fun, hearing aids are different. Wouldn't it be nice if someone could devise a hearing aid to look like an earring? I'll bet then more people would wear them (at least, more women, that is).

Hearing loss does not only affect your ability to hear. It can affect your short-term memory. What's the association? A recent study at Brandeis University found that older adults who had mild to moderate hearing loss used so much cognitive energy trying to listen that it diminished their ability to remember a short word list. That's not all. It can be exhausting to live with hearing loss—you have to concentrate so hard, particularly in a noisy setting. It's no surprise, then, that the National Council on Aging (NCOA) reports a higher rate of depression, anxiety, social isolation and paranoia in hearing-impaired (but untreated) adults age 50 or older compared to those who wear hearing aids.

Hearing loss occurs over time and with regular and repeated exposure to loud noise. That's why it's important to know how to protect yourself from damage in the first place. Some helpful tips:

  • Wear earplugs around loud noises. That goes for lawnmowers, as well as Springsteen concerts (sorry, Bruce and fans). The earplugs must fit snugly with an airtight seal to be effective. Earmuffs which cover the entire outside of the ear can work, too. But don't think you can stuff a tissue in your ear—cotton will not do the job.
  • Watch the volume on your headset. I am probably guilty of turning mine up too loud when I'm on the treadmill; the music really helps motivate me. But if your neighbor can hear the music, it's likely too loud for you to be listening to at that volume.
  • Be aware that some medications can damage the inner ear (like the antibiotic gentamicin and certain chemotherapy drugs). Very high doses of aspirin and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NASAIDs) can also temporarily affect your hearing, whether through hearing loss or ringing in the ear (tinnitus), as can antimalarial drugs or loop diuretics. Likewise, some illnesses that result in high fevers, like meningitis, can damage the cochlea.

, which can be so fashionable and fun, hearing aids are different.

As one of my readers, Vera, pointed out in an e-mail, "They (glasses) don't denote age—since plenty of young people wear them, and they can make a woman look fashionable or more serious, as she chooses. Unfortunately, hearing aids still signal AGE. Fortunately, they have shrunk since my grandfather lugged around a machine the size of a transistor radio in his shirt pocket, with big, obvious buttons and wires attached to his ears. Now they slip inside your ear and disappear."

In fact, Vera is correct. A fact sheet called "Baby Boomers, Hearing Loss, and Hearing Devices" from betterhearing.org states the following:

  • Advances in digital technology have dramatically improved hearing aids. They are smaller than ever with far better sound quality.
  • Top-of-the-line models feature "directional" or "high definition" hearing. These devices use two microphones and an algorithm to enhance sound coming from the front (the person you are talking to), while tuning down sound coming from behind (the rest of the noisy party).
  • The creation of devices using Bluetooth communication technology can turn select hearing aids into wireless, hands-free headsets.
  • A promising advancement related to the use of Bluetooth technology is the ability to make hearing aids compatible with cell phones, currently of serious concern to hearing aid users.
  • Nine out of 10 hearing aid users report improvements in their quality of life, according to a survey of more than 2,300 consumers by the Better Hearing Institute.

Curious to learn more?

Here is a list of sound levels of common noises so you can put it all in perspective.

Sound Levels of Common Noises

Decibels Noise source
  Safe range
20 Ticking watch
30 Quiet whisper
40-45 Refrigerator hum
50 Rainfall
60 Normal conversation
  Risk range
80 Alarm clock
85 City traffic
  Injury range
100 Blow dryer
100 Subway
105 Power mower
110 Chainsaw
120 Rock concert
120 Thunder
120-150 Motorcycles
120-150 Fireworks
120-150 Small firearms
130 Jet plane (100 feet away)

Sources: National Institute on Deafness and Other Communications Disorders, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, American Tinnitus Association

Comments

This was a really interesting post, and I'm sure it will help some readers. I'm too old: my ears also suffered from loud rock concerts. My husband was in the tank corps in Sweden and now has hearing aids. He does not like to wear them. That's a problem. (Anyone have any suggestions on how to get spouses to wear hearing aids?) His are the new kind. They are horribly expensive and easy to lose. This is one of the reasons he provides for not wanting to wear them. Communication does suffer. If I had known then what I know now, I would have worn ear plugs, too!

I wore earplugs the last time I went to a concert too. I have relatives with hearing aids and they find them very frustrating. I know the technology has improved, but not enough I would say. They still squeal, and amplify background noise too much. And they're just ugly. I agree that if they could design one that looked like an earring they would be more popular!

Huh, I'm not a concert fan but I do like to turn up my music when I work out. I've wondered if the combination of loud sounds + your heart pumping makes the damage any worse. I guess I should start turning it down, but like you, music keeps me going.

I can track some hearing loss to using a wood chipper years ago (without ear plugs), but my silly border collie also tends to bark right in my ear when she is excited. I seriously can feel the hearing power slipping away after she does that. :o(

I feel so special. Thanks for referring to my comment on your post on glasses. As an experienced hearing aid wearer, let me add a warning. Hearing aids are EXPENSIVE. And the high tech advances you mention drive up the cost. But DO NOT try to get by on bargain ones. A friend went to a warehouse store because they had inexpensive hearing aids. The technician tried three times to adjust them so she could hear, and then basically told her it was HER fault. So she wound up eating the cost of the "cheap" ones buying the expensive ones.
Try to get a deal that gives discounts for some health plan.(We got several hundred dollars off by joining a $30 program at a local hospital)
Get a doctor's recommendation of an audiologist, so you don't just see somebody who is a salesman.
Ask if they give free adjustments, and for how long. (It took about a year to get mine fine-tuned, and since my hearing continues to change, I have to keep going in every 6 months to be sure they are optimal. (But it is so cool. They hook them up to a computer and it programs them.)
Ask if they will give you full credit for the difference in price if you decide to trade up or down in quality after wearing them for a while.
Ask for lifetime of free batteries.
Alexandra--tell him they can't get lost if they are in his ears! Maybe pick up some brochures from an audiologist and sprinkle them around the house until he gets the hint that bottom line, it is RUDE to other people to not fix your hearing.

I'd second that advice about turning down headphone volume. I used to work in television, and as a musician (with still, thank goodness, very good hearing) I'm very conscious of keeping sound volume low. I worked with many people, even people in their twenties, whose hearing had been damaged by loud volume on headsets, and/or who thought the solution to figuring out an audio mix was to crank everything up loudly. it's not.

That is so frightening, Kerry, that people in their 20s are suffering from hearing loss. Where will they be in 10, 20, or 30 years??

I always wear earplugs when I go to aerobics because the music is SO loud--like concert loud. Even with the earplugs it's extremely loud. I don't know how people can stand it, but I see that many do not plug their ears, despite reports of the damage that can be done. I find that the noise literally hurts my ears. I did not realize there was a correlation with LT memory...very serious.

How interesting. I'd never think that behind the dancing, earplugs are hiding in people's ears! But it makes good sense, especially if the music is deafening. What's scary is that the music is STILL so loud despite your earplugs!

Hearing loss and technology has really come a long way in recent years. So good to know about all the available options out there, especially since so many people suffer from hearing loss to some degree.

I never been in a concert because I get mad whit loud sounds,it cause me headaches and takes away all the fun. My spouse is losing his hearing but nobody can tell him that. When I suggest he must use a hearing aid, he said he's fine... and turn the TV Lauder and Lauder!!!

Oh, no, Rosalba...I think YOU'LL need earplugs to protect yourself from the loud TV!

Kristen, be careful with the sound level of your earbuds/headphones when you're working out - recent studies have linked earlier hearing loss to the fact that we're all walking around with our iPods on 24/7!

Sheryl, I'm so glad you didn't have to leave the Bruuuuuuuce show. I've started wearing earplugs to shows. Who do I have to prove my coolness to anymore?

I'm so happy that I'm not alone in my earplug-wearing. You're right, Casey. Nothing to prove any longer~

I think also with hearing aids is that they don't really fix the situation. They work by amplifying the noise, which probably destroys your hearing even more. So it's best to protect your ears and not need them. This from someone who listens to Purple Rain way to loudly when it comes on the car radio.

I know many people who do wear hearing aids don't like them for that very reason. Perhaps the only solution - for now - is to warn people who are listening to loud music so they won't need the hearing aid later?

I know a lot of people who have suffered hearing loss, and several of them really struggle with it. My dad is in denial but getting deafer by the day. My son's teacher is ashamed of her hearing aids and doesn't talk to the preschoolers about them. I think we have to stop stigmatizing this phenomenon that happens to so many of us. Thanks for the post!

People of all ages suffer from hearing loss, yet people persist on pegging hearing loss as an "old age thing". As a former audiologist, I've fitted hearing aids on tiny babies, toddlers and teenagers as well as people in their later years. Anyone can need help hearing.

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