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Protecting your hearing for healthy aging

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Protecting Your Hearing for Healthy Aging

Al Waller: This may surprise you, but hearing loss is one of the most common health issues in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 40 million US adults aged 20-69 years have noise-induced hearing loss, which diminishes your ability to understand speech, hear sounds around you, and may also contribute to some other serious effects to your health.

Welcome back to ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & WealthSM. I’m your host, Al Waller. With us to discuss some ways to protect your hearing is Mihaela Vincze, public health expert for nonprofit Transamerica Institute®. Today, she will be talking about preserving our hearing health—why it’s important, how hearing loss can affect our health, and ways to prevent it.

Before we get started, I’d like to remind you that if you have any topic ideas you’d like to hear about, please reach out to us at [email protected]. We’d love to hear from you!

Mihaela, welcome back!

Mihaela Vincze: Thanks, I’m happy to be here.

Al Waller: Beyond the obvious, could you start by clarifying why our hearing so important?

Mihaela Vincze: For those of us who can easily hear, we may not think much of it. However, hearing loss can have devasting effects on our health, which may even cause us to withdraw from pleasurable activities. Without the ability to hear, connecting with others may be especially difficult.

Al Waller: Well, I can actually attest to the fact that hearing loss can also be pretty isolating at times too. In the case of my mother-in-law, who was very engaging socially, as her hearing capacity decreased – particularly in larger gatherings – she became more withdrawn, which was really kind of a shame because she was just a riot and a lot of fun to be around.

Now, are there other ways hearing loss might impact someone's health?

Mihaela Vincze: It may impact someone’s health in many ways, such as your mother-in-law. Something that stuck out to me were the findings of a study published in Archives of Neurology, which reported that people with mild hearing loss had nearly twice the risk of developing dementia, whereas people with severe hearing loss had five times the risk. And further, according to the Mayo Clinic, hearing loss may also contribute to depression and isolation.

Al Waller: Well, that's obviously a major concern and has me wondering, just what are the root causes leading to hearing loss?

Mihaela Vincze: According the National Institute on Aging, there are actually two types of hearing loss—sensorineural and conductive.

Sensorineural hearing loss is permanent and occurs when there is damage to the fibers in our ears that help support hearing — and unfortunately, once they are damaged, they cannot be fixed. This usually occurs from exposure to loud sounds.

Conductive hearing loss, on the other hand, happens when sounds waves cannot access the ear. This could be because of many reasons, including fluid, earwax, or a punctured eardrum. This type can usually be restored through medical interventions.

Also, keep in mind that someone may experience both types of hearing loss at the same time.

Al Waller: Well, full disclosure – I know the personal challenges of sensorineural hearing loss, having developed tinnitus (aka ringing of the ears) a few years back. So, this really underscores the importance of ensuring that we go all out in protecting our hearing as early as possible. What sort of indicators would alert someone if their hearing has been compromised?

Mihaela Vincze: If a person has to raise their voice to speak or to be heard over the ambient noise— according to the World Health Organization, that could be a rough indicator that that noise could be damaging. We’re talking about 70 decibels – that’s the measurement for loudness.

Al Waller: That would be a good measurement to watch. Speaking of decibels – could we take a quick inventory to review how loud common sounds are?

Mihaela Vincze: Yes, I think it’s important to know about common sounds so we can keep our ears safe and avoid hearing loss.

Al Waller: Let’s start off with a household appliance. How about the dishwasher. How loud is this one?

Mihaela Vincze: For a dishwasher, the noise can vary between 45 to 65 decibels – and it’s considered safe.

Al Waller: What about going inside of a movie theater?

Mihaela Vincze: I love going to the movies, but the noise can really be a little too loud. It can range between 70 to 104 decibels – something to combat this would be to try to sit further away from the speakers or perhaps, even wearing earplugs to help protect your hearing.

Al Waller: Those are pretty good points to keep in mind, especially with some of those summer blockbuster films that feature the special effects and explosions and so forth.

Now, how about motorcycles?

Mihaela Vincze: The noise can vary between 80 to 110 decibels for motorcycles. You can actually lose some of your hearing after just an hour on a motorcycle. So, make sure to wear some earplugs or some earmuffs before you ride.

Al Waller: Those are good points, especially because motorcycles do have a varying pitch, whether they be dirt bikes or street bikes or some of those heavy-duty “hogs” that you see on the highway.

But how about those associated with loud concerts or parties?

Mihaela Vincze: The noise from these events may range between 95 to 115 decibels. So, it is definitely a good idea to move as far away from the speakers as physically possible and wear earplugs in these situations—also remember that typically, band members and musicians are usually wearing them too!

Al Waller: Exactly! And to your point, I attended my first indoor rock concert at a large venue in ages just last week – Roxy Music – and each member of the band was wearing their earplugs! Given how diminished hearing can gradually creep up on you, how does someone know if they are experiencing hearing loss?

Mihaela Vincze: Well, first and foremost it may be helpful to know the warning signs of hearing loss, and a common sign of hearing loss is having difficulty hearing others, especially against background noise. Tinnitus or the ringing in the ears – as you alluded to earlier – can also be an early warning sign of damage to the auditory system.

Lastly, in order to know if you are experiencing hearing loss, have your hearing tested. Consider regular hearing tests, especially if you work in a noisy environment or are often exposed to loud sounds.

Al Waller: Well, I’ve got to say, growing up – it always felt like there was a sort of stigma associated with talk about “hearing loss” or “having checks” about hearing for that matter. So, really, I think we have come a long way, and it's refreshing to have these open conversations about how we can monitor and protect our hearing health.

So, generally speaking, how often should someone have their hearing checked?

Mihaela Vincze: If you're not experiencing any indicators of hearing loss – like straining to hear or hearing ringing in your ears – in that case, you should get tested every 10 years until you turn 50, and then every 3 years after that.

Al Waller: That sounds like a pretty easy ask – and a fairly reasonable schedule, especially given the importance of one's own hearing.

Where can someone go to get their ears checked if they are concerned?

Mihaela Vincze: An ear exam can be done in a few different places, like a doctor's office, at a school, or at the workplace. For an ear exam, a doctor uses a tool called an otoscope to investigate the ear canal and see the eardrum for any issues.

A hearing test would include an audiometry evaluation, which should be administered to measure hearing sensitivity. This test is conducted with headphones placed over the ears—where a sound will play. The patient will press a buzzer to indicate when they’ve heard a sound.

Al Waller: Yes, I've been there and done that. It’s a very, very interesting process. Could you walk us through how hearing loss is actually treated?

Mihaela Vincze: According to the Cleveland Clinic, hearing loss treatment includes:

  • Hearing rehabilitation
  • Listening devices
  • Medication
  • Surgery
  • Hearing assist devices like hearing aids

Al Waller: Speaking of hearing aids, how much do they cost – I suspect they are kind of expensive, right?

Mihaela Vincze: They are definitely a little pricey. Hearing aids can cost around $2,300 per unit. If you need one for each ear, you are looking at spending over $4,000.00.

Al Waller: Well, treating hearing damage is not a cheap date, as the cost between examinations and treatment can pile up. Obviously, it’s good to protect your hearing – but let me ask you – does insurance cover the cost of hearing aids and/or the other hearing exams and treatments?

Mihaela Vincze: It depends. Medical insurance may provide coverage for hearing exams and treatments, but it is just as important to check your plan for specific coverage information.

According to Medicare.gov, Original Medicare does not cover hearing aids or exams, however, some Medicare Advantage Plans offer additional benefits that Original Medicare does not cover – like hearing.

Something else to note, according to AARP, most hearing aids do not work correctly immediately – the good news is that most states do require a mandatory 30-day trial period for you to be able to test them out.

Al Waller: Well, that’s a relief to know given the costs associated there and that at least some plans in place do consider these costs. Now, in the hopes of reducing the need for hearing aids, how can someone go about preventing hearing loss?

Mihaela Vincze: First and foremost, just stay out of loud environments. There are many “sound level meter” apps for your phone, which can measure how noisy your environment is and can help indicate whether or not you should maybe try to leave where you are currently.

Also, take steps to control the noise – I know that's obvious – but turning down loud volumes on TVs and music is just super imperative to do.

Wear hearing protection like earplugs or earmuffs, especially when you're in a noisy environment. Of course, these have to be “optimally inserted” to offer the highest level of protection. Earplugs do offer a higher level of protection than earmuffs. However, earmuffs might be easier for children to wear.

For earplugs, there are a few different types. There's foam, pre-molded, and formable earplugs. Try them all to figure out which one really is comfortable for you.

Al Waller: That’s good to know. I think I know the answer to this one, but would you ever recommend wearing ear plugs while driving?

Mihaela Vincze: It is unadvisable – and sometimes illegal – to wear earplugs while driving, since it is important to hear an emergency vehicle’s siren or another car’s honk while you’re driving.

Al Waller: Yes, absolutely with the sirens – the honking I can do without! But I get you there. Now if you're game, I was hoping we might spend some time doing a little myth busting. Sound good to you?

Mihaela Vincze: Yes! I think going over the myths is a great way to learn the facts.

Al Waller: Alright then – Myth #1: Is it true that you may receive a warning signal – such as a pain, which indicates your hearing is getting damaged – and as such, can just walk away from that type of noise?

Mihaela Vincze: This is false. According to the CDC, most people do not feel any warning signs, such as pain, until their hearing is already damaged.

Al Waller: Then myth #2 – is it true that you can get used to or conditioned to loud noise and gradually acclimate to it over time?

Mihaela Vincze: This is also false. If loud noises start to feel like you are becoming conditioned to them or you are acclimating to them, this could actually be because you have already lost some of your hearing – this is also according to the CDC.

Al Waller: How about this one (myth #3) – hearing loss is something that young people really do not need to worry about.

Mihaela Vincze: False. You can protect your hearing at a very young age to prevent hearing loss.

Al Waller: That’s what I thought – in your youth, you think you’re indestructible and probably don't think about being proactive – says the guy who, back in the day, used to strive to get to the front of the concert stages and now really wishes he hadn't.

But I must say that this is some pretty important intel. Could you recommend additional resources for folks who might want to learn even more about protecting their hearing?

Mihaela Vincze: Sure. I’d like to offer three resources:

  • The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association offers great information on noise and hearing loss prevention.
  • Hear-it.org offers an online hearing test which is anonymous and free. It assesses your hearing and may be a good first step to indicate if you need a professional test.
  • The CDC has a fun interactive infographic titled “LISTEN UP! PROTECT YOUR HEARING.” It offers general information, as well as different sounds and their associated loudness.

Al Waller: Great counsel, Mihaela, and as always, good to have you back with us.

If you’d like to check out any of the source materials mentioned today, visit transamericainstitute.org/podcast to review the episode’s transcript.

We hope you’ll join us for future episodes, and don’t miss our recent episodes on the benefits of socialization and sustainability practices for health.

If you have comments, feedback, or topic ideas, please reach out to [email protected]. Don’t forget to hit that subscribe button so that you don’t miss an episode of ClearPath—Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth.

ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth is brought to you by Transamerica Institute, a nonprofit private foundation dedicated to identifying, researching, and educating the public about health and wellness, employment, financial literacy, longevity, and retirement. You can find our weekly podcast on WYPR’s website and mobile app, wherever you get your podcasts, and at transamericainstitute.org/podcast.

ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth is produced by the Transamerica Institute with assistance from WYPR.

Until the next time, I’m your host Al Waller. Stay safe, be well and thanks for listening.

The information provided here is for educational purposes only and should not be construed as insurance, securities, ERISA, tax, investment, legal, medical, or financial advice or guidance.

Al Waller is a long-time Baltimore native and employment expert with a 30-year career in leading and advising locally and globally based corporations on matters including: Talent Acquisition and Retention, Employee Relations, Training and Development.
Mihaela Vincze is a public health expert and experienced health care educator. Serving as Transamerica Institute’s health care content developer, she shares insights on health and wellness on ClearPath—Your Roadmap to Health and WealthSM. Mihaela earned her master’s and bachelor’s degrees in public health at California State University, Northridge.