Presbycusis is the process by which we gradually lose our hearing as we age, affecting one in three people over the age of 65. It often first affects the ability to hear higher-frequency sounds, such as the high note of a violin or sounds of birds chirping. Many people are not even aware that the hearing loss is occurring, because it’s a gradual loss.
Researchers don’t know exactly why it happens, but there currently isn’t a way to stop it completely. However, certain activities are known to exacerbate age-related hearing loss, such as continuous exposure to loud noises, genetic factors, certain health conditions, and side effects of some medications. Avoiding these alone can help you protect your healthy hearing.
Signs that you may be experiencing age-related hearing loss include:
- Sometimes difficult to make out what others are saying
- High-pitched sounds are difficult to hear
- Background noise makes conversing difficult
- Women are harder to understand than men
- Some sounds are painful to hear
- Ringing in the ears may occur (tinnitus)
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to protect your hearing, prevent damage to your ears, and stave off presbycusis for as long as possible.
1. Jobsite Protection
Employers are required by OSHA to maintain a hearing conservation program in situations where exposure to noise meets or exceeds 85 decibels over eight hours. A hearing conservation program is designed to prevent hearing loss in the workplace, preserve and protect workers’ hearing, and provide workers with the knowledge and personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect themselves against hearing loss while at work. This is most often accomplished by having a physical barrier against noisy machinery, taking frequent breaks when working in a noisy environment, and wearing hearing protection, such as ear muffs or earplugs.
If you’re going to be working around loud noise for more than a few minutes, make sure you are wearing the proper PPE. Earplugs are made of foam or rubber, and fit into your ear canal to block entering sounds. Earmuffs look like headphones and fit completely over your ears to block sound. Both earplugs and earmuffs reduce incoming sounds by approximately 15 to 30 decibels, although some are designed to mitigate higher levels of sound. If you think your workplace is dangerously noisy and doesn’t have a hearing conservation program in place, bring it up to your manager or someone in human resources.
2. Headphones and Earbuds Protection
Headphones and earbuds are a great way to enjoy music, as long as you do it responsibly. Digital music devices such as iPods and MP3 players deliver much more sophisticated sounds these days. Used with headphones or earbuds, they can produce the same decibel level as a live concert if played at full volume, so you need to be careful in order to protect your hearing. If you’re going to use headphones, try to use models that offer noise-cancellation - this way you don’t have to increase the volume to dangerous levels to block out unwanted background noise. Keep the volume at a reasonable level - approximately 60% of the max, and no higher. Also take frequent breaks when listening to give your ears some rest.
Earbuds, on the other hand, are more dangerous. Here’s why: compared to headphones, earbuds get much closer to your eardrum causing a dangerous increase in decibels. Headphones act as a barrier to outside sound, but earbuds do not block any outside sound, causing you to increase the volume to block out unwanted sounds. Exposure to the high levels of noise that can be produced by earbuds can cause permanent damage in as little as eight minutes, or about the length of two songs. So stick with headphones and save your hearing.
3. Protect Your Ears from Household Machinery
We live in a noisy world, and many common household appliances may be harming your hearing and you may not even be aware of it. Vacuum cleaners, hair dryers, blenders, and garbage disposals all produce noise that can be as high as 90-95 decibels, which is enough to damage your hearing. How can you protect your hearing around these appliances?
There’s a few things you can do.
For appliances that have a volume control, such as the TV or your car radio, turn down the volume. As you replace household appliances, shop for new models that operate at lower decibel levels. Many manufacturers now include this information. And finally, if you’re going to be engaging in a noisy activity, such as vacuuming or woodworking, wear a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, earmuffs, or earplugs.
4. Military Hearing Protection
Noise-induced hearing loss is one of the top service-related injuries experienced by veterans. Most of the injuries are incurred from the loud noises produced by gunfire, explosions, aircraft, and vehicle engines. Blast injuries experienced by service members result in permanent hearing loss 50% of the time. If you serve in the armed forces, it must be a priority to protect the health of your hearing. The Department of Defense Hearing Center of Excellence lists several ways to avoid noise-induced hearing loss in the line of duty:
- Know your surroundings and when and where PPE is necessary
- Use newer appliances and machinery with reduced noise output.
- Limit your exposure to noise.
- Wear PPE when it’s necessary.
- Use personal listening devices at a reasonable volume.
- Periodically give your ears a chance to rest away from noise.
The Hearing Center of Excellence also suggests a number of PPE devices to protect service members’ hearing such as foam earplugs, triple- and quad-flange earplugs, tactical earplugs, earmuffs, and the military-issued Tactical Communication and Protective System.
5. Concert Protection
Concerts and other live events are often loud, sometimes deafening, especially if the venue is indoors. With blaring speakers and yelling crowds, that’s a recipe for noise-induced hearing loss. Here’s a few things you can do to save your hearing:
- Don’t stand near loudspeakers and other sources of loud noise.
- Take a break and go outside or move away from the noise source every 15 minutes.
- Wear earplugs - you’ll still be able to hear the music just fine.
- Give your hearing almost a full day to recover afterwards.
The information in this guide has been written using the following reliable sources: