Do you or a loved one have hearing loss? Around 49 million Americans have hearing loss and 50 million experience tinnitus, according to the Hearing Loss Association of America. The World Health Organization (WHO) also estimates that around 1.5 million people are hard of hearing across the globe. There are a lot of causes, from genetics and infections to sound exposure.
The good news is there are some really simple ways to protect our ears from harmful noise. I learned some amazing tips from Dr. Rich Tyler, an audiologist with the University of Iowa’s Carver College of Medicine. He is also a professor of otolaryngology and communication sciences and disorders.
Dr. Kathy – How do we measure hearing loss?
Dr. Tyler – We test hearing using Hertz (Hz) frequencies. Humans can hear soundwaves from around 250 to 20,000 Hz. The human voice, for example, has a maximum Hz of 8,000. We also look at decibels (dB), which is a measure of intensity or perceived loudness. A loss of 25 dB is enough to qualify as mild hearing loss.
Hearing damage may come from noise exposure, aging, or both. When aging, we start to lose the upper frequencies first. Some people experience this in their 50s while others are in their 70s. But we can also damage our ears through exposure – it is the second most common cause of hearing loss.
Dr. Kathy – Are there certain activities or environments that put us at risk for hearing loss?
Dr. Tyler – People who regularly work in factories or on farms have a higher risk of hearing damage. Individuals near firearms can also experience hearing loss, such as military members, law enforcement, hunters, or anyone who shoots recreationally.
Dr. Kathy – And we all know that a rock concert can leave your ears ringing for hours. In fact, professional musicians are 4 times more likely to have hearing loss and 57% more likely to develop tinnitus. But most of us don’t have that kind job. What are things we might experience in everyday life that worsen hearing?
Dr. Tyler –It’s wise to use ear plugs when doing chores like lawn mowing, vacuuming, and snow blowing. Those machines are incredibly loud to use. So are power tools like saws, drills, and hammers. Personally, I carry ear plugs in my pocket all the time. Even when I listen to music in public, I pull them out.
Dr. Kathy – We often think that constant exposure to a noise can cause hearing loss. But can a single loud sound also be a risk?
Dr. Tyler – Absolutely. Both continuous noise like factory machinery and impulsive noises like an explosion are a problem. OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, requires ear protection for each. For example, continuous noise can’t be over 115 dBA (louder than a clap of thunder). Impulsive or impact noise shouldn’t exceed 140 dBA (louder than a jet engine).
While hearing loss susceptibility varies widely among individuals, ear protection is always a good idea. Anything above 85 dB can cause permanent hearing loss.
Dr. Kathy – I had a farmer once tell me about a time when a loud noise went off nearby but he didn’t think anything of it. He made a call and suddenly couldn’t hear anything. So he called again and switched to his other ear – that’s when he found out he lost his hearing in one ear. All it took was one incident. His hearing never came back.
Dr. Tyler – That’s unfortunately all too common. It only takes one exposure to leave lasting damage.
Dr. Kathy – Is it true that people with hearing problems, including tinnitus, sometimes avoid sound-based alarm clocks?
Dr. Tyler – Everyone is different, to be clear. Some people with hearing loss have a strong natural sleep cycle and don’t need any help rising. Others are comfortable using an alarm clock or a radio timer. But I have seen tinnitus sufferers avoid alarm clocks because the pitch triggers their tinnitus or is too similar that they can’t hear the alarm well. What’s important is that people have choices for waking up in the morning that don’t contribute to their stress.
Light Awake is a great alarm alternative for anyone with hearing loss. Instead of a noisy jangling or an ear-splitting ringtone, Light Awake gently flashes light to transition you out of sleep. Like the morning sun, light is our body’s natural cue to rise every day. Light Awake is also great if you live with others and don’t want to bother them with a loud alarm. Download here!