Adapted from AARP’s Hearing Loss for Dummies by Frank Lin, MD, and Nicholas Reed, M.Aud (John Wiley & Sons, August 2022)
From the clink of two wine glasses coming gently together to the word “Cheers” itself, your ability to hear allows you to process and understand the world around you. Enjoying a conversation over dinner, appreciating the melody and voices of a choir, pulling to the side of the road at the sound of a fire engine . . . it’s made possible by your hearing.
For all of us, though, our hearing will gradually and subtly decline over time. By the time we’re in our 40s, 7 percent of us will experience some hearing loss. By our 60s, that number grows to 27 percent, and by our 80s and older, 82 percent. Hearing loss is inevitable even for those of us who didn’t attend loud concerts or crank up the volume in our earbuds.
Please don’t stop reading. Or throw up your arms in despair. There are things you can — and should — do to protect your hearing. Because hearing loss is not, as many believe, a relatively inconsequential and inconvenient aspect of aging. Scientists now know that nothing could be further from the truth. Addressing hearing loss may be one of the most important things you can do to keep your body and brain healthy and to keep you engaged with life. Hearing loss raises your risk of social isolation, loneliness and depression, falls, cognitive decline, and even dementia.
So let’s talk prevention. There are just three words we want you to remember:
Avoid loud noises.
That’s far and away the most important factor that you can control to minimize your risk of hearing loss over time. The impact of noise on the ears is cumulative, meaning it’s generally not one event (short of something as loud as hearing a gunshot right next to your ear) that dictates how noise impacts your ear. Instead, it’s all the little decisions and habits that accumulate over a lifetime that dictate how noise affects your hearing
To put it bluntly, loud noises are not good for the inner ear. Picture it this way:
Loud noises = Really intense air vibrations shaking the eardrum and middle ear bones = Really strong fluid waves being transmitted to the inner ear from the middle ear = Sensory hair cells in the ear being shaken really, really hard.
Things that get shaken really hard can get damaged and broken. The same is true of the structures in the inner ear.
What can you do about it? The general rule of thumb to remember on a daily basis is this: If you have to raise your voice to be heard by someone at arm’s length, the environment is noisy enough to hurt your ears.
In these cases, move away from the noise if you can, or if you can’t, make sure to use some sort of ear protection (earplugs that go in your ear or noise-canceling headphones or earmuffs).
You may also be wondering about using headphones and earphones and whether these could be too loud for your ears as well. The answer is unequivocally “Yes” when they are turned up too loud and for too long. To protect your hearing:
- Use over-the-ear headphones rather than in-the-ear earbuds. Over the ear headphones block out more of the ambient noise so you won’t have to turn the volume as high.
- Use headphone or earbuds with a noise cancellation feature. This feature also allows you to avoid having to turn the volume as loud.
- For headphones or earbuds with a smartphone, use the smartphone’s built-in programs to restrict the sound output to safe levels (less than 85 dB). Both Android and Apple phones now have such programs in their Settings menu that will guide you through how to choose the level.
- Use headphones that have a built-in volume limiter. These headphones are often designed for kids so that there’s no way the sound can be turned too loud.
- Use earbuds or headphones for no more than 60 minutes at a time and give your ears a break between periods of use.
Learn more about hearing loss — how to prevent it, spot it and treat it — including details on OTC and traditional hearing aids in AARP’s Hearing Loss for Dummies by Frank Lin, MD, and Nicholas Reed, M.Aud (John Wiley & Sons, August 2022).
Explore tools and resources from the AARP Hearing Center including the phone-based National Hearing Test — free for AARP members once a year.