Be Nice to Your Ears: They Could Save Your Life
Hearing loss is devastating for seniors, but it is often preventable.
Consequences of Hearing Loss for Older Adults
The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study on June 11th concluding that seniors with hearing loss are 32 percent more likely to be admitted to a hospital than their peers with normal hearing, Johns Hopkins reports. They are 36 percent more likely to suffer an injury or illness that lasts more than ten days.
Older adults with hearing deficits are also more likely to experience depression or similar psychological distress — 57 percent more likely.
Hearing deficits can lead to social isolation, which is one cause of physical and mental declines, according to lead researcher Dr. Frank Lin.
Earlier studies have found a strong link between social interaction and happiness. One investigation out of the University of Arizona and Washington University found an association between greater well-being and spending time talking with others. Having substantive conversations was associated with an even bigger emotional boost than small talk.
It’s very difficult to have a substantive discussion when you can’t hear everything your interlocutor says. Sadly, the frequency of human speech is one of the first people lose when their hearing deteriorates, the New York Times reports.
About 28 million Americans have lost some hearing, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). ASHA estimates that “40 to 50 percent of people 75 and older have a hearing loss,” while Lin puts the proportion of hearing-impaired individuals over 70 at two-thirds.
What Causes Hearing Loss and How to Prevent It
According to the World Health Organization, “exposure to excessive noise is the major avoidable cause of permanent hearing impairment worldwide… In a developed country, excessive noise is at least partially the cause in more than one-third of those with hearing impairment.”
Comparative epidemiology corroborates the substantial impact noise has on our hearing. “People living in industrialized countries lose their hearing earlier than their non-industrialized counterparts.” Residents of non-industrialized countries are less likely to have repeated exposure to lawn mowers, blenders, subways, earphones, traffic, power tools and other loud contraptions.
In contrast, 30 million U.S. residents “are exposed to dangerous noise levels each day,” ASHA reports. As the noise around us increases, so do cases of hearing impairment. “The number of Americans with a hearing loss has evidentially doubled during the past 30 years.”
Subjecting ourselves to so much noise makes us culpable in our own hearing loss, according to expert Katherine Bouton. And once the damage is done it cannot be undone: ASHA observes that “ten million Americans have suffered irreversible noise induced hearing loss.” Irreversible.
Fortunately for younger people, prevention is easy: wear earplugs. Be alert to the sources of loud noise in your life. Otolaryngologist Michael D. Seidman recommends using them when using a hair dryer, for example. I wear them when I use my shredder (little machine, big noise) and in spin class (on the increasingly rare occasions that I make it to spin class). Dr. Seidman recommends covering your ears when an emergency vehicle with sirens on approaches. Now that paying attention to noise has become a habit, I do that reflexively.
Dr. Seidman is especially emphatic about portable music players. He recommends setting a maximum volume in a quiet place, and resisting the temptation to turn it up on the subway. That situation might call for noise-cancelling headphones. I can attest that a good pair will let you listen to a movie at a lower level even in the unrelenting din of an airplane.
Please start protecting your ears for your future physical and emotional health. I don’t want to be the only one in the nursing home who can carry on a conversation.
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