Understanding the Damage Noise Has On Your Hearing
In honor of the conclusion of Better Hearing and Speech Month, I’d like to take a moment to talk about prevention. Unfortunately most people have little to no awareness of the terrible damage that loud noise does to their ears. Persons of all ages (including children) are being affected by the invisible crisis of noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) and tinnitus (ringing in the ears). Harmful noise is commonly thought to be obvious, like fire crackers or a gun shot, but it can present in lots of other innocuous ways- like from earphones like AirPods, home appliances, power tools, landscaping equipment, and even public address speakers in stores and airports. I see patients in my clinic that are dentists, hair dressers, pilots, musicians, bar tenders, and engineers…all occupations that have some type of noise exposure throughout their career.
Many people don’t realize that exposure to loud noise is cumulative throughout our life- it adds up like each puff of nicotine adds up for smokers over time. Auditory damage can occur from just one exposure (i.e a firecracker going off right next to you), or multiple lower level exposures over time (a dentist holding a drill close to her face every day, day after day). How much damage to the ears occurs is dependent on the the frequency and loudness of the noise itself. In addition to damaging the tiny hair cells in the inner ear, it also damages the hearing nerve itself and causes changes to the part of the brain that processes sound. Noise-induced hearing loss typically develops within five to ten years of the initial exposure. Those changes that occur are linked to tinnitus, decreased sound tolerance, and understanding speech in background noise, even when there isn’t a diagnosed hearing loss.
Some people are more at risk than other, including infants and children, hearing-impaired individuals, tinnitus sufferers, and older adults. This population will have more difficulty understanding speech in ambient noise, develop hearing loss faster and at lower noise levels than normal hearing individuals. Since most people are unaware of the risk of NIHL, use of earplugs or muffs when in noisy environments or engaging in noisy activities is not the norm. But not preventing noise induced hearing loss carry high educational, social, economic and healthcare costs. Hearing loss ALONE costs the global economy $750 billion a year! Early hearing, even mild, is linked to learning problems, social isolation, and poor mental health. People suffering with tinnitus and hyperacusis (sensitivity to loud sounds)are more likely to have anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Hearing loss and problems understanding speech in noise are linked to a higher risk of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s.
The writing is on the wall! Protect your hearing by being aware of your exposure and taking measures to lessen the risk…wear earplugs or earmuffs and try to avoid noisy environments when you can. Turn down the volume on those earbuds and get your hearing tested at least once a year to make sure you don’t miss any changes in your hearing…your ears and brain will thank you for it!