Listen up: Preventing hearing loss before it’s too late
March 10, 2014
Once just a joke in a commercial, asking someone "Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now?" while talking on a cell phone has become commonplace. Oddly enough, as wireless phone service has improved, when asked "Can you hear me now?" more people are answering "No, I can't."
'A career of not being careful'
Hearing loss is a growing issue currently affecting 48 million Americans. There are three main types of hearing loss: conductive, sensorineural and a combination of the two. There's also presbycusis (typically sensorineural in nature), which happens gradually as people age. Prebycusis is permanent and irreversible, while conductive hearing loss can be fixed through surgery or pharmaceuticals. Genetics can contribute to hearing loss, and untreated hearing loss is linked to other diseases such as dementia. Once viewed as a health issue primarily affecting the elderly, young adults are increasingly at risk.
"(There's) research that we're seeing more teenagers with hearing loss because of iPod use," said Dr. Daria Stakiw, board certified doctor of audiology with Rocky Mountain Audiology in Edwards. "We're definitely seeing a younger population of hearing loss than we've ever seen before."
Parents telling teenagers to "turn down the music" is not a new phenomena. Kids blaring rock 'n' roll hasn't stopped since the Beatles touched down at JFK in 1964. What's changed since then is that young adults now listen to music at loud volumes while wearing earbud headphones, which parents can't control or realize it is happening. Stakiw said it can be hard to convince young people to take hearing damage seriously, because it's something that builds over time.
Such was the case with Justin Ayer, a local firefighter with Eagle River Fire Protection District. Ayer started experiencing problems with his hearing at age 16, mainly because he lived on a ranch and was always using loud farm equipment, he said.
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Like many young people, Ayer didn't think twice about using hearing protection. It wasn't until this past year, at age 33, that he sought help from Stakiw. Ayer came across an article written by another firefighter about his permanent hearing loss and tinnitus. Tinnitus is the sensation of hearing ringing, bells or other sounds even when no sound is present.
"(The article) talked about tinnitus and broke down the misconception for me that hearing loss results in the volume being turned down on life, which is really not true," Ayer said. "When you experience permanent hearing loss, a lot of people have ringing or banging in their ears; it's that damage that drowns out everything else."
Stakiw said there is no FDA approved cure for tinnitus, but there are many ways to reduce and manage it.
Ayer now wears hearing protection when he's at work and tries to promote awareness about hearing loss to his fellow firefighters.
"(With) permanent hearing loss, a lot of (it) is cumulative," Ayer said. "A career of not being careful around occupational exposures all adds up."
AVOID permanent HEARING LOSS
Certain types of hearing loss are preventable, but Stakiw said it's often akin to sun damage; people don't do something about it until it's too late.
"You don't see the wrinkles or sun spots until age 40 or 50, but stopping sun exposure isn't going to rewind that," Stakiw said. "(Hearing loss) is very similar."
There are steps someone can take to minimize their risk for hearing loss. When experiencing a 20 decibel or higher noise reaction (such as at a concert or while mowing the lawn), use disposable ear plugs to protect your ears. If you're frequently exposed to loud noises, consult an audiologist to get hearing protection custom made to fit your ears. While there's no hard or fast rule about volume levels on electronic devices, Stakiw said if you're sitting beside someone wearing headphones and you can hear what song or book they're listening to, that's too loud. The key to preventing hearing loss is being proactive.
"Our world is becoming louder at every turn, so it's not something we can avoid 100 percent," Stakiw said. "The thing we can affect is our listening level and (doing things like) taking hearing protection with us when going to the monster truck rally every Friday."
Early treatment of hearing loss is instrumental in helping people both physically and emotionally.
"First (people) start with feeling frustrated," Stakiw said. "That leads to social isolation because you stop doing the things you love to do because (you can't hear well)."
If you're older than 40, then Stakiw recommends getting your hearing checked every year, just like you would with your eyes and overall health. If you're younger than 40, then there's no real need to have your hearing screened unless you're experiencing noticeable symptoms. Talking to teenagers about hearing loss tends to go in one ear and out the other, but Stakiw said there are things parents can do. The audiologist implements a "no headphones" rule in her house. Ayer said it's hard to get others to care about hearing loss because it seems so far in the future, which is exactly why it's best to do something about it now.
"I encourage those that I work with to use (hearing protection)," Ayer said. "Especially the young people who probably don't see it as a big deal. I tell them that someday, they want to be able to hear their grandchildren cry."
Even better than being able to hear a baby cry is hearing them laugh for the first time. That's one sound that never gets old, and it's one you'll hear loud and clear if you take care of your ears now — not later.
Rosanna Turner is a freelance writer. Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.