As a child, I noticed an older hearing-impaired family member didn’t engage at parties. I didn’t understand why, but I could tell she felt lonely and isolated. As an audiologist, I now know those with hearing impairments struggle to interact comfortably with others, especially at large noisy gatherings. Many simply stop trying. As a result, I developed a passion for helping others with hearing loss.
Age-Related Hearing Loss
Over the years treating patients, and now working for a hearing aid manufacturer, I’ve spent a lot of time encouraging people to protect their hearing as best they can. Like it or not, our hearing deteriorates as we age.
The tiny hair cells inside our inner ears translate sound waves into electrical impulses to the hearing nerve, then on to the hearing areas in our brain. The most common and treatable type of hearing loss occurs when these hairs or hearing nerve pathways are damaged as we grow older.
What Causes Hearing Loss?
There is no single cause of age-related hearing loss. For some, it’s genetic, while others experience changes in their hearing system as they age. In addition to natural degradation, many of us actively contribute to damaging our hearing through recreational activities that involve exposure to loud sounds over time.
Whether it’s lawn equipment, power tools, or seeing your favorite band play, exposure to high levels of sound over time at work or during social activities oftentimes exceeds safe listening levels. Whatever the reason, your likelihood of hearing loss is significant by the time you reach 55 or older.
In fact, nearly 25 percent of those aged 65 to 74 and 50 percent of those 75 and older experience disabling hearing loss. Hearing deficiencies aren’t just an inconvenience either. They’re a significant contributor to cognitive decline and I’ve seen patients grapple with the effects of depression, anxiety, and alienation. The good news is that hearing loss is the number-one modifiable risk factor for dementia according to the Lancet Commission on Dementia prevention.
It’s especially important for older adults to protect whatever hearing capabilities they have left. Here are a few tips to consider as you age to protect your hearing and maintain a high quality of life.
Safe at Home
- Home can be a noisy place. Televisions, sound systems, appliances, power tools, or even children’s toys can be louder than you think. Therefore, it’s important to limit your exposure to loud noise wherever possible. For example, when watching your favorite show or listening to music, keep the volume down and take frequent listening breaks.
- Make an effort to educate family members and friends on noise-reducing practices, such as muting the TV while having a conversation or keeping the tunes down during a gathering.
- Be aware of your appliances, as well. Worn or loose parts can result in unnecessary noise, so ensure everything is maintained. If in the market for a new product, such as a blender, hair dryer, dishwasher, or air conditioner — look to buy a quieter option.
- A decibel (or dB) is the unit of measurement that measures volume or sound. Noise(s) at 80dBA over a prolonged period can harm your hearing, and many common appliances may reach that level or even higher. Lawnmowers, leaf blowers, and other landscaping equipment routinely exceed safe listening levels over prolonged periods of use. I recommend using this interactive decibel tool to learn more about the everyday items that may damage your hearing and wearing hearing protection when at risk. Your ears will thank you in the long run.
Out on the Town
- Sound exposure and decibel levels are often even higher in public settings like concerts, sporting events or movie theaters. These events commonly expose you to dangerous sound levels of 100,110 or even 115dBA. Such excessive noise is a surefire way to damage the tiny, inner ear hair cells mentioned earlier. But that doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the fun.
- I always keep a set of disposable hearing protection with me for when I need it. They can easily be purchased at any drug store or pharmacy. You can keep it in your bag, wallet or car, so whenever you have to be around noise, you know you’re protected. If disposable hearing protection is uncomfortable or reduces the dynamics of music too much, consider purchasing musician type hearing protection such as those found here or find a local Hearing Care Professional that can make you custom hearing protection that is molded to your ears.
- If you insist on going without hearing protection, give your ears a rest periodically by removing yourself from loud noise. Position yourself as far away from the loud noise source as possible. Then, the following day, plan to avoid any loud sounds or activities, stay in quiet environments and turn your devices to the lowest possible volume settings.
- Speaking of devices, earbuds have become a favorite across all age groups and demographics. They’re essentially tiny speakers placed inside your ear canal, and they’re becoming as ubiquitous as the smartphone. I know I love mine! But if used for too long and at excessive noise levels, they can cause permanent damage to your ears.
- For those already struggling with hearing loss, the inclination is to turn up the volume of their earbuds. Unfortunately, that only worsens the problem. Instead, audiologists recommended the 60/60 rule. Listen to your earbuds at no more than 60% of the maximum volume. Also limit the amount of time you spend wearing them to 60 minutes a day.
- Better yet, make the switch to over-the-ear headphones with noise cancellation. Top-quality pairs help block outside noises, meaning you don’t have to turn the volume up as high to hear well. Granted, headphones can also damage hearing if used for too long at loud levels, but they’re less risky because they’re not lodged in your ear.
Age Related Hearing Loss: Moving forward
Aging is one of the most common causes of hearing loss, so don’t make it worse on yourself. Take some or all of these measures to benefit your hearing, brain health and overall quality of life. A few simple changes in and out of your home to protect your hearing could make all the difference.
If you suspect you do have age related hearing loss, modern and professionally fit hearing aids can help. Many models and styles are available to suit every lifestyle and budget. Haven’t checked your hearing since grade school? I recommend taking this quick and easy online hearing screening or visiting your local licensed Hearing Care Professional today.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jodi Sasaki-Miraglia, AuD, completed a double bachelor’s degree in Audiology & Speech Language Pathology at the University of Northern Colorado. Jodi also holds a Master’s degree in Audiology and a Doctorate degree in Audiology from Salus University. She has dedicated the last 18 years of her career working for top global hearing device manufacturers as a Manager of Education & Training, Manager of Audiology Technical support, Sales support, and Practice Management. Jodi is proud to be an Audiologist for almost two decades. Her past positions include working as a Clinical Audiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale and in Audiology Private Practice. Jodi is a frequent guest lecturer at Au.D. programs, provides public outreach for Hearing Healthcare, and presents at local and national meetings.