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Front Page » July 22, 2010 » Focus on Health » What you can't hear can hurt you
Published 1,462 days ago

What you can't hear can hurt you


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By RICHARD SHAW
Sun Advocate publisher

Many people laugh when they watch television and see former Channel 5 weatherman Bob Welti doing his advertisements for hearing aids. In one ad his supposed granddaughter says, "I love you grandpa," softly and he can't hear her without his hearing aid.

Other ads also tout hearing devices, including phones and phone systems that help the hard of hearing.

Most of us shrug this off as someone else's problem; something we will never have to deal with.

But the fact is that most of us are not smelling the coffee or in this case, hearing the message, and it's not because we can't, it's because we don't want to.

Hearing loss in the United States is nearly as widespread as vision problems. The problem is that it is not quite as apparent, and there is much more seeming social trauma associated with losing our hearing than there is about diminished vision.

Advertising has done that to a certain extent. Glass can be made to look sexy, especially when tinted. No one has been able to perform that stunt with a hearing aid. Yet those who need hearing help are in just as much need as those that need vision adjustments. We have gone many miles to develop trouble free contact lenses, devices that almost no one can tell a person is wearing. Hearing aids come in versions that "barely show" but by doing that we have shown there is a stigma for hearing loss that is greater than vision loss.

But hearing conservation and improvement is no joke; and it is not only for the very old. It is for everyone, and I can give you one reason why.

People who have profound hearing loss will tell you that they would much rather have a loss of vision than their hearing.

I spent four years at the University of Utah learning to be an audiologist (a very long time ago) and I can tell you that people value their hearing, particularly those that have so little of it. The words of one man I worked with as an intern at a clinic will always stick in my head.

"If I had known how much life I would lose by not protecting my ears, I would have done something about it," he said after an audiological test I had given him. "I can't hear my family most of the time when they talk to me. And I really miss the ordinary sounds of life like the refrigerator coming on in the middle of the night or the birds singing from the tree outside my bedroom window in the morning. Deafness is a very lonely state of affairs."

A lifelong metal shop worker, he had never worn ear protection, but then many people hadn't. In the 1960s we were just learning about all the causes of deafness from long term exposure. We knew that sharp noise could damage hearing, but the long term exposure, even of moderate levels of sound were starting to be recognized as dangerous.

It would seem the concept of hearing loss would be upfront and simple. But it can mean different things to different people, and certainly, human nature being what it is, many people that have a loss will either not admit or do not recognize it.

While hearing loss does affect people in every age group, it is is one of the most common conditions affecting older adults. About 36 million American adults say that they have some type of loss. The numbers get higher as people get older, too. About 33 percent of Americans between 65-75 years of age report hearing loss problems. Beyond 75 almost 50 percent of people have some kind of loss, with the majority of those being male.

Based on research, hearing problems can occur in three general areas of the hearing apparatus. Ear anatomy, while not simple, can be simply explained for purposes of general information.

The outer ear consists of the ear itself and the ear canal. Generally problems here are a result of injury or a buildup of wax in the ear canal restricting sound.

The middle ear consists of the ear drum which is connected to a series of small bones called the ossicles. These bones transfer the sound from the ear drum to the inner ear. Basically, in simple terms, they vibrate based on the sounds they activated by. The middle is ear the part of the ear that need equalization when approaching higher altitudes. This is done by pressure relief through the eustachian tube which connects the throat with the middle ear. When people have a cold sometimes this tube is swollen or blocked and that can cause the ear to hurt because the pressure can't be equalized, consequently the ache from altitude change.

Damage that compromises hearing either to outer ear or middle ear is called a conductive hearing loss.

The inner ear, which is located basically at the end of the ossicles is where the really complicated stuff happens, and it is also the place where the most profound of hearing losses occur. It is basically a transfer station where sound is turned into electrical signals to the brain. This happens in the cochlea. The vibrations from the ossicles moves fluid in the cochlea where it activates nerve endings that send signals to the brain.

Loss of performance in this area of the ear is called a sensorineural hearing loss.

Often hearing problems associated with conductive losses can be mitigated, while sensorineural losses are much harder to compensate for. Some people end up with losses in both areas, making their cases even more complex.

Obviously there is a center in the brain that handles these signals, but for the purposes of this article, the ear structures themselves are adequate to discuss.

People experience some common things concerning hearing throughout their lives. While not everyone has a hearing loss from these things, many do.

Remember too that hearing loss is a lot like vision loss in the fact that there are many variations. With vision people can go from being nearsighted/farsighted to totally blind where they cannot even discern any light. That same is true of hearing loss. Some may only experience slight losses in hearing at the high range of sounds (where the first damage usually can be detected) while others are profoundly deaf, hearing nothing.

Based on communication with those I worked with that were profoundly deaf, particularly those that once had hearing and were not deaf from birth and really knew the difference, profound deafness is an extremely lonely place to be. We don't realize how much we take sound for granted, not only for communication, but for the many small things in life we enjoy.

Hearing loss can be caused by many things. As stated, long term exposure to noise is one of the major causes, but so are some diseases and certainly heredity can also be a factor. Direct injuries to the ear are also a big factor. Some drugs can also cause hearing loss. And of course there is aging (described earlier), something we all face.

Research over the years shows that hearing conservation when people are young pays off when people get older. It also shows that people are losing their hearing at an earlier age more often these days.

Why is that?

Our society is a noisy one. Despite efforts in the workplace to have comprehensive hearing conservation programs, outside activities seem to be placing more and more people at risk. While there are many causes to hearing loss, the amount of noise people are exposed to today is a big factor.

Noise induced hearing loss is very preventable. Since it is also the most common cause of hearing loss, people need to pay attention to what is going on around them or what they are surrounding themselves with.

Obviously sharp noises like explosions or any kind of booming noise can cause damage, but it takes quite a lot to permanently damage hearing from one event (although it can happen). More importantly, because often the sharp noises are not predictable, is keeping track of what kinds of noises a person is exposed too.

A large single noise or an extended period of noise often causes tinnitus, or a ringing in the ears. Everyone has experienced it at one time or another. Being near a firecracker that goes off or a gun being fired just once without ear protection are examples of things that can set this off.

But imagine that ringing not going away after a few minutes, but being there continually, day after day, night after night. This type of deafness is not having any sound, but continual sound that masks out the things a person does want to hear. In many ways extreme tinnitus is worse than deafness because of its ability to make one unsettled.

This ringing or buzzing sound in a persons ears after going to a party, concert, stock car race or other loud event is a common condition. Tinnitus usually lasts until a person's ears gradually readjust to normal sound levels. Experiencing tinnitus or having to yell to be heard over sounds at an event or venue are both signs that the environment a person is in is too loud.

Attending concerts or blasting a stereo in the car once in a while is a common experience. However, over a period of time listening to even "organized sound" is dangerous if it is too loud. Noise induced hearing loss is showing up among young people more and more largely due to personal music systems. Of course there are many other kinds of noise from our busy world too; video games, televisions, movie theater sound systmes, traffic in high volumes, and many machines contribute to the noise. Is it any wonder that people seem to be experiencing hearing loss at younger ages than they were when their parents were their age?

While some hearing loss may be expected as individuals get older (starting at as early an age as 20), hearing conservation is important to observe. While most damge to hearing rarely ends up with people losing all their capacity to detect sound, it still can be very dehabilitating.

Simply put, preventing hearing loss is a much easier way to conserve hearing than trying to fix it after the damage has occurred. Here are some ways to conserve hearing.

*Wear a good set of sound suppressors (ear plugs, headphones, etc.) when using noisy equipment, shooting firearms, setting off fireworks or any other activities that might create very sharp noises.

*Follow hearing conservation measures spelled out in the workplace closely. Employers are required to provide personal protective equipment in the workplace and that includes devices for mitigating sound in noisy environments.

*If you have to yell to be heard in a noisy environment, the sound may be causing damage to your ears. Move back or get away from it.

*Sound causing pain in your ears means something. Pay attention to it.

*Music concerts of all kinds can be damaging if one sits to close to the performers. Rock concerts usually get blamed the most, but all kinds of music can be damaging if too loud. If you play in a band, wear ear plugs when you can.

*Certain drugs, even over the counter drugs can be dangerous to hearing. Some antibiotics, even aspirin can be dangerous at times. Read labels and know the dangers.

*Some kinds of infections (in addition to middle and inner ear infections) and diseases can cause hearing loss. Look for signs of problems associated with mumps, measles, meningitis and scarlet fever.

In recent times researchers have found ways to help even some of the most hearing damaged individuals. But the cure for anything always has its downside. Keeping the original equipment that came with one's body healthy and protected is usually a much better path to follow than looking for a cure after ignoring good hearing health habits or abusing the hearing apparatus you were born with.

The research shows loud and clear that good hearing conservation is something everyone should be interested in.

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