Can You Hear Me? Protecting Your Hearing
By Heather Maloney
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center staff
Lawnmowers, fireworks, motorcycles-to many of us, these represent the sounds of summer. But if you're not careful, your ability to hear these sounds may disappear sooner than you think.
"Noise pollution is a very serious problem today," says Dr. Donica Porter, Director of Audiology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. "We need to protect our hearing, and the earlier we start, the better."
Those most at risk for doing damage to their hearing are people who work in fields like construction and manufacturing, who are exposed to loud noise all day. But those of us who walk past the construction site are exposed as well. Motorcycles, lawnmowers, rock concerts-over time, all have the potential to permanently damage your hearing.
Here's how: the inner ear (or cochlea) is the main sensory organ of hearing. Shaped like a snail shell, the receptors for low frequency are well protected. Those responsible for transmitting high frequency information are outermost and more vulnerable.
Hearing loss is caused by the destruction of those outermost high-frequency fibers, which get damaged and sheared to the point where they can no longer transmit sound to the brain. Once these fibers have been destroyed, they cannot be altered or repaired. As this progresses to serious hearing loss, the only option is a hearing aid.
Dr. Porter notes that the loss of those high-frequency fibers is especially important because, when we listen to speech, it is those fibers that transmit the sound to the brain to enable us to discriminate words, which means you're destroying your ability to understand speech.
The more exposed to loud noise you are, the greater the chance that, over time, you will destroy those receptor cells. Dr. Porter says the average person will start to see some hearing loss by age 65, though men may notice it up to 10 years earlier (starting around age 55).
She cautions, however, that teenagers and young adults who listen to excessively loud music are going to succumb to hearing loss much sooner. "I've already seen people in their 30s who are experiencing hearing loss," she says.
So how can you tell if something's too loud and potentially doing damage? Dr. Porter gives a few examples: "If the music in your car is loud enough that the car next to you can hear it,you're doing damage," she says. "And if you're at a concert and can feel the music pound in your chest, you're doing damage as well."
Dr. Porter advises that any time you're using a power mechanism (like a lawnmower), riding a motorcycle or going to a rock concert, hearing protection is very important. "We usually recommend people wear ear-muff type hearing protection if they're doing things like using a lawnmower or power tools," she says. "And these can be purchased at any home-improvement store."
"The sponge-like earplugs are also very effective if they're placed properly; make sure you follow the directions," she says. But she cautions that the plastic earplugs available at the drugstore are the least effective and should not be used.
Dr. Porter stresses that using hearing protection will protect your hearing for a much longer period of time. "It's just like sun exposure," she says. "Once the damage is done, it's done."
Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.
Posted June 2009