Hearing health is an issue that is often overlooked and is far more serious than many believe. In the United States, one in eight people older than 12 years suffers from hearing loss in both ears, and about 1 in 3 people between the ages of 65 and 75 years old suffer from hearing loss.
Hearing damage or loss can occur gradually or suddenly, depending on the circumstances at play. Several risk factors are known contributors to hearing damage, some of which can be controlled while others cannot. Knowing how to control the risk factors, where possible, and practicing proper hearing preservation can help us enjoy healthy hearing throughout our lives.
How Hearing Damage Can Occur
Hearing damage is divided into three main categories:
- Conductive Hearing Damage (occurs in the outer and middle ear)
- Sensorineural Hearing Damage (involves the inner ear)
- Mixed Hearing Damage (a combination of the two)
To understand how hearing damage can occur, let’s first take a look at how we, as humans, perceive sound:
Sound travels through the air as a wave, causing disruptions in air pressure around us. These air pressure fluctuations are detected by us and travel through the outer ear, causing vibrations within the eardrum. At the eardrum, these vibrations are amplified by tiny bones, causing these vibrations to travel further to the inner ear.
Here, these vibrations pass through fluid suspended in our inner ear within a snail-shaped structure known as the cochlea. Inside the cochlea, there are thousands of tiny hairs attached to nerve cells that move to the vibrations (like tall grass in the wind), converting these vibrations into electrical signals that our brain can interpret as sound.
Hearing loss or damage can occur as a result of some of the following:
Inner Ear Damage: Aging and exposure to high sound pressure levels damage the hairs within the cochlea, preventing them from accurately transmitting electrical signals to our brain as they are either broken or missing.
Earwax Buildup: A buildup of earwax can easily restrict or completely block the transmission of sound waves through your ear canal.
Ear Infection and Other Illnesses: An ear infection can cause temporary hearing loss; however, certain illnesses and medications can affect your hearing health.
Ruptured Eardrum: A ruptured eardrum can cause immediate, permanent hearing damage or a complete loss of hearing. This can be caused by sudden pressure fluctuations, unexpected exposure to high sound pressure levels, or an unwanted object entering your ear canal.
Aside from the above, there are several risk factors that can increase your risk of experiencing hearing damage or loss:
Aging, Genetics, and Health Complications
As we age, our hearing health deteriorates, and there is, unfortunately, no way to combat this aside from practicing hearing safety when we are exposed to high sound pressure levels. We generally lose intelligibility in the higher frequency bands as we grow older. We can also inherit hearing issues hereditarily, and again, there is not much that can be done to treat such hearing damage.
This type of hearing loss can occur in different stages, severities, and at different times of our lives. Some medications can cause hearing damage as a side effect, and certain illnesses affect our hearing health over time.
If you work in heavy industrial environments where loud noises from machinery, tools, or planes/trucks are invading your ears on a daily basis for several hours at a time, you will most certainly experience some hearing damage or loss during your time in such environments.
Recreational Exposure to High Sound Pressure Levels
It’s not only factory or airport workers that are exposed to high sound pressure levels constantly that face hearing health risks. If you enjoy going to clubs or concerts, listening to music loud in your car or headphones, riding a motorcycle, or finding yourself enjoying recreational time in louder environments, you are equally at risk of experiencing hearing health issues either over time or very suddenly.
Loudness Levels of Common Sounds
To understand what sounds can be considered dangerous, we need to compare them to common sounds relative to the Decibel (dB), the unit of measurement for sound pressure (volume)
The below table shows the volume in Decibels (dB) of common sounds to show how they can affect your hearing health.
|Decibel (dB)||Sound Source|
|85||Heavy Traffic, Busy Restaurant|
|110||Power Tools, Live Concert|
The above table is, of course, not 100% accurate since some motorcycles are louder than others, and some tools are quieter than others, for example. This chart is also based on relatively close listening proximity. However, some of these sounds can still be damaging from afar.
The louder the sound, the less time it takes to cause significant hearing damage. The following table shows recommended exposure times (without hearing protection) of various sound pressure levels.
|Decibel (dB)||Recommended Maximum Exposure Time|
|115||15 Minutes or Less|
Looking at the above tables, you may feel it is difficult to follow the recommended exposure times. When watching a live concert, for example, we’re exposed to sound pressure levels that are considered dangerous for far longer than the safe limit. Those who work in heavy industry are also at a far greater risk of developing hearing complications due to the constant, daily, intrusive sound pressure levels experienced.
So, What Can I Do To Preserve My Hearing Health?
Since simply avoiding louder environments isn’t always possible for us, in order to preserve our hearing health, we need to look at other measures that can be taken to protect us from permanent hearing damage.
Wearing Hearing Protection
Wearing hearing protection in environments where high sound pressure levels are common, such as concerts, sporting events, firing ranges, on a motorcycle, or in heavy industrial areas, is vital to preserving hearing health. There are several options available, from in-ear style earplugs to heavily-insulated over-ear options.
You can pick up foam-based in-ear earplugs at most hardware stores, which are effective for light construction work but aren’t suitable for very noisy environments. They are pretty cheap, too (usually less than $5.00 per pair), but investing in a proper pair of earplugs is something I’d seriously recommend if you’re regularly exposed to high sound pressure levels.
Earplugs used by musicians generally provide much greater sound reduction, and while they can be a little more expensive (between 20 and 40 bucks), they are definitely worth the price. You can also visit an ear institute and have a pair custom-molded for your ear canal size and shape to achieve a far more effective level of sound reduction.
For heavy industry workers who need to wear hearing protection for several hours at a time, I’d recommend a pair of over-ear style mufflers, which are far more comfortable than in-ear earplugs, and also reduce external sound levels more effectively.
Limiting Your Volume
It’s easy to get caught up in the music and crank the volume on your headphones, but this practice, if done regularly, has a good chance of causing permanent hearing damage. For this reason, we recommend trying to be conscious of the volume at which you’re listening to music and for how long.
Short periods of louder music do less damage than extended periods, so if you’re used to listening to music loudly, it can be beneficial to slowly ween off the volume and drop down to 95% of your usual volume, then go down in 5% increments until you’re at a reasonable listening level. This is because it can be quite difficult to adjust one’s volume lower without feeling like you’re missing elements of the music.
While it’s easy to say the exact decibels that one needs to aim for, that’s not very useful for most people who don’t have a good gauge on what volume constitutes what decibel reading. So instead, we recommend just analyzing your volume levels and trying to make a subjective decision over how loud it is. When one consciously thinks about the volume level, it is usually easy enough to tell whether it’s too loud or not.
Having Your Hearing Tested
Regularly testing your hearing at an ear institute will help you identify hearing loss at an early stage, allowing you to take care going forward to prevent more serious permanent damage. It may not seem important as a young individual, but given how prevalent earbuds have become in society, it’s not a bad idea to get tested from fairly early on to know if you should be taking more precautions or whether your existing listening habits may be within safe levels.
There are some online tests for testing hearing loss, where one can see which frequency ranges they can hear, but these are more of a novelty and don’t hold much weight in terms of truly understanding your hearing health. One of the biggest flaws in these tests is that the listening device is different for each user, which can always impact the results. They also just don’t cover everything you need in a proper hearing test. Please use a certified audiologist for any accurate hearing tests.
Avoiding Unnecessary Risk Factors
We all enjoy visiting a concert or blasting music in our car or headphones from time to time, or perhaps you ride a motorcycle or snowmobile or work with power tools or lawnmowers around the house regularly. Because these are things we often enjoy, it can sometimes be difficult to limit our exposure times, so wearing hearing protection and taking regular breaks are effective ways of limiting the negative effects of these activities on our hearing health.