I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Doctor of Audiology Jodi Sasaki-Miraglia about noise-induced hearing loss. She is the Director of Professional Education with Widex, a leader in hearing aid research and development. She is passionate about ridding the world of this preventable type of hearing loss.
To begin, Dr. Sasaki-Miraglia explained how the ear works and how hearing is damaged by excessive noise:
The ear has three parts — the external, middle, and inner ear. Sound waves travel through your ear canal and hit your eardrum, activating the middle ear bones and turning sound energy into mechanical energy. That energy reaches the cochlea in the inner ear. The sound waves stimulate tiny hair cells in the cochlea that are like grass waving in the wind. You begin approximately with 20,000 hair cells at birth.
Vibration of the hair cells creates an electrical impulse that’s transmitted to the hearing nerve up to the brain in fractions of a second. The sound then is analyzed and reacted upon or ignored in the brain.
Noise-induced hearing loss occurs when hair cells in the cochlea are damaged by sounds registering above 80 to 85 decibels. Both the loudness and length of exposure affect the degree of hair cell loss.
How many of the 20,000 hair cells you have left now, depends on how well you’ve safeguarded your hearing. Once damaged, these hair cells cannot repair themselves or grow back.
Before hearing protection was mandated in the workplace, machinists, pilots, and first responders subjected to sirens were all exposed to dangerous levels of noise. But noise-induced hearing loss continues despite workplace advances in hearing protection and hearing protection programs. Our recreational listening practices are part of the problem.
Recent statistics from the National Institutes of Health show 37.5 million Americans 18 years and older report some trouble with hearing. Noise-induced hearing loss is, unfortunately, becoming prevalent in young adults with unsafe listening practices — listening to loud music.
Hearing loss might be subtle in the beginning — difficulty hearing in a crowded room, difficulty hearing the TV, and difficulty understanding someone on the phone.
Dr. Sasaki-Miraglia points out that hearing loss can take the enjoyment out of traveling. “When we travel, we want to have conversations with locals and learn about the culture. You miss out if you can’t hear.” If you pay full price and only experience half of the trip due to hearing loss, that’s not a good deal.
Difficulty hearing leads to withdrawal from social activities. When you’re not experiencing the fullness of life through everyday activities with family and friends, and you’re tending to stay home when you’d rather be traveling, hearing loss has negatively affected your lifestyle.
If this glimpse into a life with less hearing hasn’t convinced you to care for your hearing or seek help with hearing loss, here’s another piece of evidence for you to consider. A recent study out of the University of Colorado at Boulder showed that over time, adults with untreated age-related hearing loss, even if it’s mild, can have an increased risk of cognitive decline. This likely results from social isolation or withdrawal. The good news is that well-fitted hearing aids by licensed hearing care professionals were shown to reverse these changes within six months in this study.
Dr. Sasaki-Miraglia said many patients that audiologists see have noise-induced hearing loss. The bad news is once noise-induced hearing loss occurs, it can’t be cured. The good news is noise-induced hearing loss is treatable with well-fitted hearing aids. And the even better news is noise-induced hearing loss is preventable.
Here are the ways Dr. Sasaki-Miraglia recommends preventing hearing loss during flights and in everyday life:
1. Wear Hearing Protection On Flights
At takeoff, jet engines can reach up to 140 decibels. Takeoff and landing are the loudest times of a flight. You should wear hearing protection during these two times at the very least.
Over-the-counter earplugs will bring the sound down 20 to 25 decibels provided you are wearing them correctly. Only about 50% of people have them seated deeply enough in their ear canals to be completely effective, though.
You can also purchase earplugs, called musician earplugs, that is a step up from the foam or silicone varieties. They effectively reduce jet engine noise. As a bonus, these earplugs don’t cut out all the high pitches so the listening experience for conversation and music is more enjoyable. If you buy a pair that come with their own carrying case, attach them to your keychain and they’ll be handy whenever you need them — either while flying or at a music venue.
Passive noise-canceling headphones block between 15 and 20 decibels. In order to do so, they need to fit snugly and cover the entire ear.
Dr. Sasaki-Miraglia cautions that drowning out engine noise by raising the volume of the music or movie you’re listening to through in the ear or over-the-ear headphones means your ears can sustain damage from dual noise exposure.
2. Invest In Custom Ear Plugs
Your audiologist can fit you with custom-made earplugs that fit your ear canal properly, are more comfortable, and are more effective than one size fits all earplugs that may allow more sound to enter the middle ear because they fit poorly.
3. Consider Buying Noise-Cancelling Hearing Protection
Active noise-canceling earphones or headphones sense incoming sound waves and send out opposing sound waves. The opposing sound waves negate the incoming low frequency noise (like that of a jet engine). They reduce noise by about 40 decibels.
4. Choose Your Seat Wisely
Seats over the engines and toward the rear of the plane are louder than those in front of the engines.
5. Download A Decibel App
Anything over 80 to 85 decibels can become unsafe depending upon how long you’re exposed to the sound. The higher the decibels, the faster the damage to unprotected ears. For example, sitting in a crowded football stadium with rowdy fans will expose you to 115 decibels and risk hearing damage in 15 minutes. Lawnmowers reach about 90 decibels with a risk of hearing damage after four hours of exposure.
Rather than committing decibel levels to memory, you can download an app to your phone that will give you a decibel level on the spot. There are a number of free sound level apps you can download, including Sound Meter for androids and NIOSH Sound Meter Level for iPhones.
Pro Tip: For a low-tech sound meter, use this as your gauge: if you need to raise your voice to be heard or need to move closer than three feet from someone to hear him speak, the noise level is too high. You should limit your exposure to this level of noise to no more than 30 minutes to an hour, according to Dr. Sasaki-Miraglia.
6. Get A Baseline Hearing Test
If you haven’t had a hearing test since childhood, it’s time to get a baseline hearing test with an audiologist. Ideally, a hearing test would be included in your health maintenance, much like physicals, eye exams, and dental checkups.
“Typically, insurance will pay for a hearing screen once a year,” Dr. Sasaki-Miraglia said. Medicare pays for hearing exams with a referral by a healthcare professional.
People at risk for noise-induced hearing loss should have a hearing test annually or sooner if they experience accelerated hearing loss or ringing in their ears.
7. Know The Signs Of Hearing Damage
If you leave a rock concert and have ringing ears, you’ve just damaged your hearing. If it sounds like your ears are stuffed with cotton balls after you leave an ice arena in which the home hockey team battled the visiting team all three periods and won in a shootout, you’ve just damaged your hearing.
An inability to hear high-pitched sounds, difficulty hearing a conversation in a restaurant or in a place with background noise, trouble hearing over the phone, the need to turn up the volume on the TV, and hypersensitivity or ear pain with certain sounds are all signs of noise-induced hearing loss.
8. Seek Care Sooner Rather Than Later
With any sign of hearing loss, visit your audiologist for a hearing test. “Treating hearing is more about staying healthy and active, not about getting older,” Dr. Sasaki-Miraglia said.
And for anyone hesitant about hearing aids, she went on to say advances in hearing aid technology mean greater wearer satisfaction with delivery of the cleanest sound faster than ever before. “Voices sound natural, music isn’t flat, and sounds aren’t tinny.” Microchips in the hearing aids adjust for the listening environment and listening intent in real time.
“People don’t realize how much they socially withdraw until they get their hearing addressed,” she said. “When they get it addressed with the right product in conjunction with the right hearing care professional, they wonder why they waited so long.”
For more information on Widex, check out the link.
Here are some other tips to help you travel safely: