Oh, the good old days. Remember those rock concerts that left your ears ringing? How about cranking up the stereo and singing along to your favorite tunes?
We may have had fun, but we could be paying for it down the road when our hearing starts to go. Exposure to high-level noise is the most common cause of auditory nerve damage in people younger than 55, resulting in irreversible hearing loss, says Carol Bergmann, AuD, a doctor of audiology at the Hearing Health Care Center.
Although hearing loss can be caused by many things, including chronic infections, certain medications and hereditary conditions, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that 22 million American adults between 20 and 69 years of age have permanently damaged their hearing due to exposure to loud noise.
“If your ears are ringing after exposure to a loud noise, you’ve done permanent damage,” Bergmann confirms. She adds that when she tests patients, she often sees a telltale pattern of high-frequency hearing loss that is indicative of noise-related damage. “Construction workers, hunters, people in the military or factory workers exposed to excessive noise levels over time are most at risk,” she says. In fact, the NIH recommends protecting your ears from any sound above 85 decibels, including lawnmowers, snow blowers, motorcycles, firecrackers and loud music.
Obviously, the best tactic is prevention, and Bergmann says that ear plugs usually will do the trick. But once the damage is done, it will only get worse with age. Most people first notice a problem when they find it difficult to understand conversation.
“Consonant sounds are among the first to go, and they are crucial to understanding speech,” Bergmann says. However, most people ignore early signs of a problem and put off a hearing test. This is a mistake, she notes. “When we notice a slight change in our vision, we get glasses to bring things back into focus. We should consider hearing treatment the same way. When we notice a problem, we should seek help instead of waiting for it to become an even bigger problem that affects our everyday life.”
Cochlear implants are surgically implanted devices that may help some people with severe hearing loss, but for those who have only high-frequency hearing loss, a hearing aid is typically the first line of treatment. Fortunately, technology has come a long way. Jeff Singer, an audiologist and senior VP of HearUSA, says hearing aids are no longer the large, flesh-colored lumps that whistled when you hugged your grandparents.
“The new devices are very small, and most are digital,” he says. “Some are even bluetooth compatible.” This wireless technology allows the hearing aid to link to other devices, such as cell phones, opening a new world of possibilities in terms of hearing phone conversations or media broadcasts.
Digital hearing aids include a computer chip that is programmed by the audiologist to the specific needs of the patient. If hearing loss worsens over time, the hearing aid can be reprogrammed to allow for optimal assistance. While the digital devices are more expensive than analog, Singer notes that the ability to reprogram them may mean they need replacement less often than an analog hearing aid. Noise reduction technology allows modern hearing aids to moderate background noise so that the wearer notices less ambient noise amplification, he adds.
Other innovations include colors, patterns and designer cases that have done for hearing aids what colored bands have done for braces, making them an individual fashion statement. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Singer says. “In fact, you can consider a hearing aid like you would glasses and find one that fits your needs and sense of style.” The bottom line is that people don’t need to live with hearing loss—and if you hear your teenager’s iPod from across the room, tell him to turn it down.