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Preserve Your Hearing! Practical Wisdom And Preventive Steps

  • According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), 15% of Americans (26 million people) between the ages of 20 and 69 are afflicted by hearing loss due to exposure to loud sounds at work or during leisure activities.
  • Every day, we are exposed to noises and sounds that damage our ability to hear.
  • In order to prevent this damage we first have to be aware of the danger and harm. Any sound above 85 decibels can potentially injure hearing.
  • We can prevent hearing loss and tinnitus caused by toxic levels of noise by avoidance or by simple, yet powerful steps.

Avoid loud noises, reduce the amount of time you're exposed to loud noise, and protect your ears with ear plugs or ear muffs. These are easy things you can do to protect your hearing and limit the amount of hearing you might lose as you get older.

We are all in danger of experiencing hearing loss as well as the misery of tinnitus. But some hearing loss is preventable.

“Preserve Your Hearing” is intended to be a wakeup call. We can easily implement practical solutions for ourselves and our loved ones.

PRESERVE YOUR HEARING

In Judaism, one of the seven wedding blessings praises God for creating joy and gladness, loving couples, mirth, glad song, love, loving communities, peace, and companionship and asks that the sound of joy, of gladness, the voice of the loving couple, their jubilance, and of the youths from their song-filled feasts be heard.(paraphrased ecumenically)

I have to admit that this article came to be partly because of a pet peeve of mine. I love celebrating weddings and other festive occasions. I love the experience of community coming together in mutual joy, excitement, and support of the people who are celebrating an important life milestone – or just having a great time. We come together to enjoy music, song, dance, laughs, good food, drinks, and conversation. Friendships are formed and nurtured. Memories are created.

What I don’t love, putting it mildly, is the inability to carry on a conversation and the pain of poundingly loud music. And I love music.

Instead of enjoying the chance to dance and to talk with others, I find myself yelling to be heard, fighting a headache, and generally feeling somewhat miserable. Yes, I know many find the loudness itself exciting, exhilarating, and even intoxicating. Well, it turns out that the loudness is, indeed, intoxicating. At least it is toxic to hearing.

This loud music is literally poisoning our hearing.

We want our guests to enjoy themselves. We take care to provide food that is fresh. We’re careful to make sure the dance floor is free of hazards that could cause a fall. We provide for separate space where people who want to smoke can do so without exposing the rest of our guests to second-hand smoke. But when it comes to noise, I’ve found it difficult to get far enough away for comfort without leaving the party altogether.

Bands, orchestras and DJs have been raising the volume at celebrations of all kinds.  They believe the high volume creates high energy and excitement. In general, sporting events and concerts are also getting louder. And modern sound systems reach a higher decibel level than older ones, one that is damaging to ears at even brief exposures. While some people seem to crave loud music, many react to loud noise with anxiety and irritability, an increase in pulse rate and blood pressure, or an increase in stomach acid.  (Those people might quietly leave your party way too early because they don’t want to complain.)

Sadly and ironically, the more such joyous events we attend, the more damage to our hearing.

Remember, hearing loss usually develops over a period of several years. Since it is painless and gradual, you might not notice it. But you may have trouble understanding what people say; they may seem to be mumbling, especially when you are in a noisy place such as in a crowd or at a party. Ironically, you may become less able to enjoy music.

TINNITUS

I don't go to see bands any more because I've got tinnitus, so I have to avoid loud music. You get used to it, but when it's quiet you hear a constant ringing. - Linton Kwesi Johnson

You also might notice a ringing or other sound in your ear (tinnitus), and that can become permanent. Tinnitus increases a person’s risk of serious mental health issues, including depression and anxiety. It can trigger episodes of extreme anger and suicidal ideation, according to the Hearing Health Foundation. No doubt most of us would become irritable if we lived with a constant ringing or buzzing in our heads.

Lesson of “A Star is Born”

For a vivid depiction of the devastation that tinnitus can cause, go see “A Star is Born.” The portrayal of Jackson Maine is much more than subtext for the love story and wonderful soundtrack. Jackson, who suffers from hearing loss and tinnitus, is seen consulting with an otolaryngologist who, along with Jackson’s manager, urge him to wear in-ear monitors. These are custom-molded ear plugs that musicians use to protect their hearing, while being able to hear themselves play. Sadly, Jackson refuses, and, as the story illustrates, perhaps it was already too late for him to save his hearing. More than 12 million people in the United States suffer from some degree of tinnitus, according to Stanford Health Care. At least 1 million experience ringing in their ears so severe that it affects their daily activities.

In any case, take no chances with excessive noise – the hearing loss it causes is permanent.

With healthy, well-functioning ears, we can detect sound from the softest whisper to the loudest thunder clap. Our ears are a miraculous gift. Needless to say, many people live full, happy lives without hearing. But, if given a choice, most of us would elect to be able to hear.

WE CAN PREVENT HEARING LOSS AND TINNITUS – EXCESSIVE NOISE IS OUR ENEMY

Many things that we cannot control or prevent, including age, cause hearing loss. However, noise, not age, is the leading cause of hearing loss. And it is in our power to prevent it from stealing our hearing. Protecting our hearing will not only prevent or delay hearing loss, it will also benefit our mental wellness.

According to Dangerous Decibels, a project of the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, approximately ten million Americans are victims of noise-induced hearing loss. Noise-induced hearing loss is a permanent hearing impairment that results from exposure to high levels of noise for an amount of time that exceeds our ears’ ability to withstand damage. When noise is too loud, it begins to kill cells in the inner ear or cochlea (called “hair cells” or stereocilia). These are the cells that respond to mechanical sound vibrations by sending an electrical signal to the auditory nerve. Different groups of these hair cells are responsible for picking up different frequencies.

A healthy human ear can hear frequencies ranging from 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz.  Loss of hearing can be caused by a one-time exposure to loud sound (that exceeds 124 decibels, called acoustic trauma), but more typically, as the exposure time to loud noise increases or repeated exposure occurs, more and more hair cells are destroyed. As the number of hair cells decreases, so does your hearing.   And since this damage can happen without pain, we don’t even know when to stop or get away from toxic noise levels.

The average person’s pain threshold for noise is approximately 120-140 decibels, but damage can be caused by prolonged, sustained exposure to 85 decibels – the noise level of midday city traffic. This means that your ears could be sustaining damage at a wedding party even if you are enjoying lively music and having a fabulous time. The fact that you find the amplification tolerable, or even pleasurable, does not mean you are safe.

Fifteen percent of Americans between the ages of 20 and 69 experience high frequency hearing loss as a result of leisure or occupational activities, by the everyday noise that we take for granted as a fact of life.

Alarmingly, recent studies show an increase in youngsters’ hearing loss. Evidence suggests that loud rock music along with increased use of earphones may be responsible for this phenomenon. Twelve to fifteen percent of school-age children already have permanent hearing loss – enough to make it more difficult to understand even normal speech. Note: The rule of thumb for the use of earphones for music listening is that if you can’t hear someone talk to you while you have headphones or ear buds on, or if someone else can hear your music while your earphones are on, it’s too loud and is causing damage.

There are no mandated protections for professional music providers (or guests!) at parties or for teens listening to their phones. Nor are there restrictions on how loud music can be performed or played at parties and concerts. But we can exert control over how much noise we expose ourselves to and protect our ears.

THE DECIBEL SCALE – HOW LOUD IS TOO LOUD; HOW LONG IS TOO LONG

To interpret the sound receiving process, a scale, known as decibels, was created. Sound intensity is measured in decibels (dB). Like a temperature scale, the decibel scale goes below zero. The average person can hear sounds down to about 0 dB, the level of rustling leaves. If a sound reaches 85 dB or stronger, it can cause permanent damage to your hearing. The amount of time you listen to a sound affects how much damage it will cause. The quieter the sound, the longer you can listen to it safely. A decibel is a logarithmic scale of loudness, so a difference of 1 decibel is perceived as a minimum change in volume, 3 decibels is a moderate change, and 10 decibels is perceived by the listener as a doubling of volume.

EVEN COMMON SOUNDS CAN CAUSE DAMAGE

So, how loud is too loud? Here are some guidelines outlining the maximum allowed exposure time for different decibel levels. Noise below 85 decibels is generally considered safe even for sustained, long-term exposure. This includes the humming of a refrigerator (40 decibels), bird chirping (50 decibels), a normal conversational voice (60 decibels), the noise of a typical vacuum cleaner (70 decibels), and a crowded restaurant (80 decibels). At 85 decibels – which, as mentioned, is the noise level of heavy city traffic – damage can begin to occur after eight hours of sustained exposure.

Once the noise is at or above 85 decibels, it takes drastically less time to suffer hearing damage. For every five-decibel increase in sound intensity, the time you can be exposed before you risk hearing loss is reduced by half or more. You can be exposed to 90 decibels for four hours, 95 decibels for two hours; a volume of 100 decibels is considered harmful after just 15 minutes of exposure. Studies have shown that movie-theater sound peaks in the 100-decibel range at some theaters. This level of sound can cause tinnitus and hearing loss. If you are cringing during the previews, it’s too loud.  In a nightclub, where noise can peak above 110 decibels, without hearing protection you risk hearing loss in less than five minutes. Bands and DJ’s typically play music exceeding 100 decibels, and often keep turning up the volume as the event progresses in order to sustain the “vibe” in the room. The “safe” exposure time before damage occurs at 115 decibels is three minutes. Music may be exciting, melodic, harmonious, and fun, but it’s still noise.

HOW CAN WE KEEP OURSELVES SAFE FROM TOXIC NOISE?

Many of us voluntarily expose ourselves to harmful noise recreationally (musical concerts, movies,  disco bowling, eating at restaurants with loud music and conversation,  parties to celebrate weddings and coming of age ceremonies, use of power tools, hunting or target shooting with loud firearms, and, of course, simply listening to music with earphones. To protect ourselves and our children, we should take special care to avoid these toxic noise levels, just as we would avoid toxic smoke.

While there are sound-level apps that can measure noise exposure and indicate whether the volume exceeds safe noise limits, we only need to use common sense.  If you have to shout to someone 6 feet away to be heard above the music, or you feel the vibrations in your body, or if the music is painfully loud, you can be pretty sure the sound level has exceeded a safe limit and is damaging your hearing.

To protect yourself, at least periodically leave the room and go to a quiet place to allow the ear to recover from the noise and avoid sustained exposure to dangerous sound levels.  Better yet, wear earplugs. They are common among those who work with noise but should help avoid damage for party-goers’ ears at celebrations, as well.   Properly fitted earplugs or muffs reduce noise 15 to 30 dB. To be effective they must totally block the ear canal with an airtight seal. Earplugs must be snugly sealed so the entire circumference of the ear canal is blocked. An improperly fitted, dirty or worn-out plug may not seal and can irritate the ear canal. Ordinary cotton balls or tissue paper wads stuffed into the ear canals are very poor protectors; they reduce noise only by approximately 7 dB.

LOWER THE VOLUME.  WHAT A CONCEPT!

The most effective solution, of course, is to simply avoid the problem in the first place by ensuring that music is played at safe levels. That includes the “silent parties” where people can wear earphones to hear the music. At these parties others can converse without shouting, and each person can control the decibel level or take off the earphones. And for those wearing them, note that ear buds and exterior headphones are safe if the volume you are using doesn’t keep you from hearing someone talk to you. If someone else can hear your music while you are wearing them, you are definitely in the danger zone. Remember, the input from a personal music system at maximum volume into stock earphones can generate a sound level of over 100 dB.

If you think you have grown used to loud noise, your ears have likely been damaged. There is currently no treatment – no medicine, no surgery, not even a hearing aid, that truly corrects your hearing once it is damaged by noise. This doesn’t mean you should just turn up the music to louder and louder levels. You can still protect what remaining hearing you have. While it may seem silly and obvious to point this out, usually the best way to prevent future injury from noise is to avoid exposure to noise!  If you are exposing yourself to the unsafe level of noise, stop doing it!

BOTTOM LINE

Avoid loud noise when possible.

Stop going to excessively loud venues, such as concerts and restaurants where the “background” music already challenges hearing and conversation is correspondingly louder. Share this information with your friends and family.

If you are forced to endure loud noise, use ear protectors properly. Wear earplugs when attending concerts, loud group-fitness classes, working with loud machinery, such as lawn mowers. The plugs need to fit properly. In a pinch, disposable foam earplugs (available in stores or online) may help a little, but follow directions to place them properly.

For louder sounds, or prolonged exposure to moderately loud sounds, invest in musicians’ earplugs, which can reduce the volume by 30 decibels, or in protective earmuffs. Remember that 85 decibels is the cutoff for what you can safely be around for eight hours. For every 3-decibel increase above that, the safe listening time drops significantly.  For very loud sounds, use both earplugs and earmuffs. There are earplugs that allow for you to enjoy the music without destroying your hearing.

Your general health matters. If you smoke, quit. Smoking harms hearing because it impairs circulation.  Some conditions, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, thyroid disorders, and diabetes can contribute to hearing loss by compromising blood flow. Research shows that consuming excessive amounts of alcohol can cause further hearing loss and make tinnitus more noticeable.   Treat Ménière’s disease (a disorder of the inner ear) and shingles; these can take a toll on your hearing. And some medications — including some chemotherapy drugs, antibiotics, erectile dysfunction drugs and high doses of aspirin — can be toxic to the ear. Tell your doctor if you notice any change in your hearing.

Assess the volume. Maybe you can avoid the noise. In addition to common sense indicators – such as too loud to be able to hear someone who’s talking 6 feet away; feeling the vibrations in your body; finding yourself shouting to be heard --  there are good-quality sound level apps you can download onto your smartphone to gauge the noise levels wherever you are.

Take care not to be the source of loud noise, such as by hosting a party or event at which music is played at decibels toxic to the human ear. This may entail a serious conversation with the band or DJ you have hired. For a sample letter or email to your DJ or band, click this link

We indeed hope and pray that we all can participate in many joyous celebrations that will allow us to hear the festive, exuberant sounds of happiness, well into old age.

Further Resources

For further reading on the subject of hearing safety, see the following.

American Hearing Research Foundation: http://american-hearing.org/disorders/noise-induced-hearing-loss/

Dangerous Decibels: http://www.dangerousdecibels.org

Deafness Research UK: http://www.deafnessresearch.org.uk

Maximum noise exposure chart: http://www.engineeringtoolbox.com/noise-exposure-level-duration-d_717.html

Marek Roland-Mieszkowski, Ph.D., “Common Misconceptions About Hearing”: http://www.digitalrecordings.com/publ/pdfs/misconceptions_he

https://hearinghealthfoundation.org/blogs/protecting-your-hearing-means-protecting-your-mental-health

https://www.hearnet.com/   offers risk assessments, referral links and information about custom earplugs, which are far more effective in preventing damage and evenly conveying sound frequencies than conventional earplugs.

https://www.aarp.org/health/conditions-treatments/info-2018/musicians-hearing-loss.html

Marek Roland-Mieszkowski, Ph.D., “Common Misconceptions About Hearing”: http://www.digitalrecordings.com/publ/pdfs/misconceptions_hearing.pdf