According to the National Institute on Aging, about one in three people aged 65 to 74 have hearing loss, and almost half of people over 75 have difficulty hearing. At least some of this age-related hearing loss is likely due to noise damage accumulated over a lifetime, says Erika Woodson, section chief of otology, neurotology and surgery at the base of the lateral skull, and medical director of the hearing implant program at the Cleveland Clinic. Other factors also affect your hearing as you get older, including genetics and changes in the inner ear and along the nerve pathways from the ear to the brain.
“The best thing you can do to prevent [your hearing] to get worse is to avoid exposure to excessive noise, âsays Woodson.
Noise-induced hearing loss first affects the way you hear high frequency sounds – in the 4000 Hz range – such as your microwave beeping or your car flashing. If the damage persists, it will become more difficult to understand speech, especially in places where there is background noise, such as in a restaurant.
Detecting high-pitched consonants such as “s”, “f”, “g”, “t” and “z” can be particularly difficult for people with noise-induced hearing loss, says Robert Sataloff, director of the department of otolaryngology. Head and Neck Surgery and Senior Associate Dean for Clinical Academic Specialties at Drexel University College of Medicine. âThe low frequencies that hear vowels are usually preserved,â he says, âbut they can’t tell if someone said ‘yes’ or ‘get’. “
Many people with noise-related hearing loss also experience ringing in the ears, called tinnitus.
Of course, your ears also have a way to signal danger. If you’re stepping out of a concert or sporting event and it feels like your ears are full of cotton wool, or you have ringing in your ear, that’s noise damage, Woodson says.
What is too strong?
Studies show that prolonged or repeated exposure to sounds above 85 decibels (dB) – about the volume of a gasoline lawn mower – can affect your ability to hear. “If you have to raise your voice to be heard at arm’s length, the noise level in the environment is likely over 85 decibels in loudness and could damage your hearing over time,” according to the CDC. The higher the decibel level, the less exposed to noise and the safer you can be, Woodson says. A noise of 80 to 85 decibels begins to damage the hair cells in your inner ear after about two hours. But sound at 110 decibels – the maximum volume on some smartphones – can destroy these cells in about 5 minutes.
Here are some common recreational activities that can affect your hearing and how to protect your ears if you practice them.
1. Hunting or target shooting (140-175 dB).
A single shot is so loud that it can cause hearing loss or lasting tinnitus, experts say. Yet a study published in The Laryngoscope found that only 58.5 percent of adults who use firearms always use hearing protection and that 21.4 percent never do. To protect your hearing on the shooting ranges, experts recommend wearing ear protectors as well as foam earplugs. Make sure you put on the protection before you even step on the stove, says Woodson. âI have had patients who have lost their hearing because someone shot a gun next to them before they put on their hearing protection.
2. Attend a live musical event, even a classical one (110-130 dB).
One study found that the sound levels of live musical performances averaged around 112 decibels, with peak levels of 127 decibels. This is why many professional musicians, including Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton and Neil Young, have hearing loss. Yet more than four in five American adults never or rarely wear hearing protection when attending a loud sports or entertainment event, according to a CDC survey. Surprisingly, the CDC found that adults under 35 were much more likely to protect their ears than older adults. Woodson says it’s not just rock concerts you need to worry about. âEven if you go to the symphony,â she said, âsome parts will be too loud. “
3. Go to a game (90-140 dB).
You may know how to protect your ears during a car race, but studies show that noise at other types of sporting events can reach dangerous levels as well, even if you are in an outdoor location. A University of Michigan study found that sound levels in baseball games averaged 94 decibels, but could reach 114 decibels. During a Kansas City Chiefs football game in 2014, crowd noise was measured at 142.2 decibels, setting the Guinness World Record for crowd roaring in a stadium.
4. Woodworking and domestic projects (90-112 dB).
Many seniors who enjoy woodworking and other types of home improvement projects may not realize that power tools can cause hearing damage. A typical circular saw can damage your hearing in just a minute, according to the CDC, while shop vacuums, table saws and sanders wreak havoc over time.
5. Using a lawn mower, leaf blower or snow blower (85-100 dB).
Lawn mowers typically register between 80 and 85 decibels – the threshold for hearing damage – while leaf blowers and snowblowers can reach 100 decibels. Listening to music through headphones while you mow is especially dangerous, says Woodson, because you turn up the volume further to hear the music over the sound of the mower. If you wear hearing aids, be sure to remove them when using loud equipment so that they do not amplify the noise or cause further damage.
6. Boating or motorbike (80-100 dB).
A motorcycle engine makes about 95 decibels, according to the CDC, while the outboard motor of an outboard can reach 100 decibels. Wind noise that occurs when you are moving at high speed can further damage your hearing. Fortunately, many states now have rules limiting boat engines to 85 or 90 decibels, and you can purchase a kit to smother your engine. If you’re a biker, look for earplugs with special filters that limit wind noise while allowing you to hear sirens, horns, and other important sounds.
7. Listen to music with headphones or earphones (up to 110 dB).
Many devices have a maximum volume of 110 decibels, a level that can damage your hearing in just 5 minutes. Using headphones that fit into your ear is particularly dangerous because sound energy goes directly into your ear canal, says Sataloff. As a rule of thumb, “if it’s loud enough that the person next to you can hear what you are listening to,” he says, “it’s loud enough to damage your hearing.” “
8. Exercise class (80-116 dB).
Fitness trainers in group exercise classes often turn up the volume to levels that can harm your hearing, especially if the class is held in a small indoor space. A study of 17 indoor cycling classes in the Boston area found that noise levels exceeded 100 decibels for an average of almost 32 minutes per class. Tucci, who takes aerobics classes, says she sometimes asks the instructor to turn the volume down.
How to protect your hearing
Consider downloading a smartphone app to measure sound in your surroundings, says Tucci. Then pack a pair of disposable foam earplugs that you can put on whenever you are in a noisy environment. For maximum protection, remember to roll each earplug into a small, thin “snake” first, then use your other hand to pull the top of your ear up and back. as you slip it into your ear, says Tucci. Hold it there until it expands to fill the ear canal.
Another option is to invest in a pair of earmuffs. If you are going to be in an extremely noisy situation, like in a shooting range or on an airfield, you may want to double up and wear both.
If you are a musician or a fan of live music, look for “high fidelity” or “flat response” earplugs. Rather than muffling sound and filtering out certain frequencies, they are specially designed to reduce volume while maintaining overall sound quality.
While there is no cure for noise-induced hearing loss, experts say hearing aids can make a big difference. An audiologist can measure your hearing and help you choose the right one.
Michelle Crouch is a contributor who has covered health and personal finance for some of the nation’s largest consumer publications. His work appeared in Reader’s Digest, Real Simple, PrÃ©vention, The Washington Post and The New York Times.