Doctor’s Tip: Hearing loss can lead to multiple health problems
The cochlea is a sea-shell-shaped structure in the inner ear (inside the skull) that converts sound vibrations to nerve signals that are transmitted to the brain. The brain then “decodes” the signals, resulting in what we experience as sound. There are several causes of hearing loss, including congenital abnormalities and side effects from drugs such as certain antibiotics. The most common cause of hearing loss is damage to the cochlea as we age.
Although age-related hearing loss is common, not everybody gets it, so it isn’t “normal.” Risk factors for age-related hearing loss are: exposure to loud noises; male sex; smoking; diabetes; central obesity (heaviness around the middle); atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries); chronic inflammation; untreated high blood pressure; and poor diet.
The most important cause of hearing loss, and the easiest to prevent, is exposure to loud noises. According to “Nutrition Action,” published by the Center For Science In The Public Interest, “prolonged exposure to any noise at or above 85 decibels can cause gradual hearing loss.” Examples of noises in the safe range are: whisper, 30 decibels; refrigerator, 40; normal conversation, 60; dishwasher, 75. Examples of sounds above the safe range are: heavy city traffic, school cafeteria, 85 decibels; power mower, 90; woodshop, snowmobile, 100; personal stereo at maximum level, 105; rock concert, 110; ambulance siren, 120; jet taking off, 140; firecracker, shotgun firing, 140-165.
Hearing loss can lead to poor quality of life, and specifically the following problems:
• Relationship issues, especially with your spouse or significant other.
• Depression and anxiety.
• Accidents (e.g. not hearing a car that is backing up or a biker on the bike path).
• Of most concern is cognitive decline and dementia, which makes sense because hearing loss results in less brain stimulation.
Treatment of hearing loss has been shown to prevent these problems. According to the CDC, 20 percent of adults ages 40-69 and 43 percent of those over 70 have hearing loss. Age-related loss usually presents as inability to hear high-frequency tones (such as your wife if you’re a married man), sometimes associated with tinnitus (ringing in the ears). Unfortunately, only one in seven Americans with hearing loss is being treated with hearing aids.
If you or other people think you have hearing loss, don’t be in denial. See your PCP or an audiologist (hearing specialist) for a test; or take a $5 online test by going to nationalhearingtest.org (you need a quiet room and a land line). The problem with hearing aids is that they typically cost at least $2,500 per ear, although people say they are less expensive at Costco. Medicare doesn’t pay for them, although now that we know the health problems that result from hearing loss, it should. Another option is assisted listening devices (ALDs). These devices amplify sound, and are a few hundred dollars rather than thousands. However, some brands can make hearing worse. The Wellness Letter suggests the following websites to help find a good ALD: tinyurl.com/ALD-NAD, tinyurl.com/RERC-hear, and tinyurl.com/ALD-NIH. Audiologists can also help you, but are sometimes biased if they sell hearing aids.
Due to government regulations, job-related hearing loss is much less common than it once was. The best thing you can do to prevent hearing loss is to avoid loud noises, and if you can’t, wear ear protection (e.g. while mowing the lawn and using power tools).
Dr. Feinsinger, who retired from Glenwood Medical Associates after 42 years as a family physician, now has a nonprofit Center For Prevention and Treatment of Disease Through Nutrition. He is available for free consultations about heart attack prevention and any other medical concerns. Call 970-379-5718 for an appointment. For questions about his columns, email him at email@example.com.