Successful Aging: You can’t always hear what you want
August 16, 2016
I'm wearing my Rolling Stones T-shirt from last summer's concert in Detroit as I write this and, as much as I savor that memory, I wonder how much I've damaged my hearing by listening to loud music over the years. I even have to admit that my parents were right when they told me to "turn down that noise!"
We include dental and vision checkups in our regular health maintenance routine. But since we do not get our hearing checked regularly and hearing loss is usually gradual, most of us don't think about it. And when we do, we accept it as an inevitable part of aging.
But we do need to think about the problem and understand that we have some control over it. My favorite reference is "You: Staying Young" (Mehmet Oz, M.D. and Michael Roizen, M.D.), which includes hearing loss as a "major ager."
In the United States, about a third of people older than 65 and half of those over 75 have significant hearing loss (National Institutes of Health). And, while not a deadly disorder, hearing difficulty can lead to impatience and misunderstanding in intimate relationships ("you're ignoring me!") and limit social interaction, things that can chip away at quality of life and degrade general health. I remember how my fun-loving, gregarious aunt became afraid to go out with family and friends because she thought her hearing difficulty made people think she was dumb.
Causes can include some medications and medical conditions such as diabetes. Smoking can also damage hearing, possibly from toxins in tobacco or vascular changes that impact hearing, or both.
Not surprisingly, genetics plays a part. In 2012, scientists confirmed a link between age-related hearing loss and a gene that produces a protein in the inner ear.
About 80 different genes are connected with the problem, though, and ongoing research highlights the interaction between genetics and environmental factors.
But the primary cause of hearing loss, by far, is exposure to loud noises.
Sound waves oscillate along multiple parts of the ear, ultimately through fluid in the cochlea, stimulating adjacent hair cells. Different cells respond to different frequencies and collectively transmit signals that our brains interpret as sound.
Just as bigger, more powerful waves in the ocean are more likely to knock a surfer off the board, bigger, more powerful sound waves can fray and break these tiny hairs. These cells are hardy but too much sound — suddenly or cumulatively — can permanently damage them.
Here's a simple test from "You: Staying Young." Have someone stand about 2 feet in front of you and close your eyes. The tester whispers a sentence at any time within a two-minute period, so you don't know when to expect it. Not hearing the tester's sentence is a sign of early hearing loss and means you should take precautions to avoid further loss.
But what can we do? A healthy lifestyle can decrease the risk of hearing loss by preventing infections and other health problems that can damage different parts of the ear.
Some specific nutrients have been shown to help prevent hearing loss. Folate can slow the loss of high-frequency sounds, most likely through protective effects on both the nervous and vascular systems. Phytochemicals, ("phyto" comes from the Greek word for "plant") also appear to help preserve hearing.
But the best protection is to limit our exposure to loud noises. Hearing protection is standard in certain occupations but we need to pay attention to everyday sounds from traffic to technology.
We should also think about exposure in other settings like concerts and sports events. I remember my husband and stepson yelling their lungs out at a Nebraska Huskers game several years ago. Yes, they were wrong to ignore my suggestions that they could express just as much spirit at a lower volume and I was right to use tissue pieces as makeshift earplugs even though it looked ridiculous.
That takes me back to the music. According to "You: Staying Young," listening to a personal player at the 70 percent volume level approaches the 90 decibel range (an average vacuum cleaner is 80 decibels). Using buds that go directly in the ears increases that level by 10 decibels, which is astonishing when we realize that a 6 decibel increase doubles the noise.
I used to do my best to ignore my parents when they told me to turn down the volume. Now, even my phone warns me that listening at a high volume for a long time may damage my hearing.
Since I want to hear the music of life for the rest of my life, I listen.
Angelyn Frankenberg is a wellness coach and writer living in Carbondale. She has a master's in physical education and an undergraduate degree in music. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.