Hearing loss is increasingly understood as a major problem across the globe. Hearing loss is responsible for billions of dollars in lost productivity and medical expenses for related conditions. Lancet published a list of the twelve modifiable risk factors for dementia and Alzheimer’s last year, and hearing loss was the biggest risk factor of the twelve. While treating hearing loss with hearing aids is crucially important, it’s just as important to try to reduce the amount of hearing loss we incur throughout our lives.
While it is very common for people to experience hearing loss as we age, that doesn’t mean there’s no point in trying to protect our ears from noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) throughout our lives. The less NIHL we incur, the less severe our age-related hearing loss will be, if we have any at all.
October is Protect Your Hearing Month, so let’s focus on some of the things we can do to keep our hearing health in good shape throughout our lives.
Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL)
NIHL is incurable, but completely preventable. Many people don’t realize they’re in an unsafe sonic environment, but they’re incurring hearing loss all the same. This is partly because NIHL is not just about loudness, but about duration. Hearing loss can set in after a long period of exposure to relatively low sound levels. It can also be caused by a single, momentary sonic event that is terribly loud.
It takes only 85 dBA (decibels A-weighted) of sound to cause permanent hearing loss after about 8 hours of exposure. 85 dBA is about the loudness level of a gas-powered lawnmower, or an especially noisy vacuum cleaner.
For every additional 3 dBA of sound, the safe time of exposure is cut in half. By the time we hit 100 dBA—the loudness level of a high school dance or a motorcycle engine—it takes only about 15 minutes to cause permanent hearing loss. Many sounds we experience walking down a busy street are in excess of 100 dBA.
How to Prevent NIHL
The best thing to do when you’re in an unsafe listening environment is to move away from the sound source. However, we know that this is not always possible. Many of us experience unsafe sound levels on our morning commute, or enjoy activities that involve loud sound. Even classical musicians are uncommonly susceptible to NIHL. Hearing protection is the best defense.
Earmuffs or Earplugs
Earmuffs and earplugs are the most common devices used to protect our hearing. Earmuffs are convenient in that they can be easily put on and taken off, and they help keep your ears warm in cold weather. Earplugs are easier to travel with, are less conspicuous and less likely to be jostled out of place.
For people who wear glasses, earplugs may be better for most situations, as the temples of the glasses will break the seal between the earmuffs and the head, allowing more sound in than may be desirable.
Some activities may be so loud that both earplugs and earmuffs may be recommended to provide adequate protection. If you’re unsure of the level of a sound, you can download an SPL (Sound Pressure Level) meter app for your smartphone and check. Always make sure your hearing protection provides enough attenuation (sound reduction) for the activity you’re engaged in.
Disposable earplugs cost around $1.00/pair or less, and are usually made of foam. While they usually provide good protection, they tend to attenuate high frequencies much more than low ones, creating an unnatural representation of sound. For most people most of the time, they are a fine option.
Reusable earplugs are a little more expensive—around $15 or more—but if you use them regularly, they pay for themselves quickly. They tend to attenuate more evenly across the frequency spectrum, making them more appropriate for music. They may also be more comfortable for longer periods of wear.
The “Cadillac” of earplugs, custom earplugs are specifically made to fit your exact ear canal shape. We take an impression of your ear canal, which is sent to a specialized lab where a mold is made from it, and your earplugs are made from that mold. Because they’re designed specifically for your ears, they are the most comfortable option (and the least likely to fall out) for long periods of wear. The attenuators we use are specifically designed for different types of activities, and they attenuate nearly perfectly evenly across the frequency spectrum, making them an outstanding option for musicians and regular concertgoers.
If you’re interested in custom hearing protection, hearing aids, or you’re just due for a hearing test, celebrate Protect Your Hearing Month by focusing on your hearing health!