July 18, 2006 -- If you are middle-aged or older, you know the frustration of mistaking or missing out on important details of a conversation.
And if you are in your 20s or 30s, you know too the frustration of speaking to hearing-impaired parents, grandparents and great aunts and uncles in the hope that they will understand even some of what you are saying. In his new book, "How to Save Your Hearing," Dr. Michael D. Seidman reveals why our hearing is more at risk today than it was in centuries past, and gives tips on how to protect it.
Here is an excerpt from the book:
THE MANY TOLLS OF HEARING LOSS
"I like your watch. What kind is it?"
"About quarter to three."
"The chicken looks good. Do you want white meat or thighs?"
"Oh, no fries for me, thanks."
"The lawyer said he can see you tomorrow. Is three okay?"
"Sure . . . but why is it free?"
Most of us have had little misunderstandings when words weren't heard correctly. But when these incidents become a regular part of the day, hearing loss could be to blame. The best way to determine how well hearing is working is by having an evaluation by a hearing professional -- starting with an otolaryngologist/head and neck surgeon (also known as an ear, nose, and throat doctor, or ENT) and an audiologist. But here are a few signs that may help determine whether it's time to make that appointment:
People often have to repeat themselves when speaking to you, or you think that others are mumbling when they speak.
You find yourself straining to hear conversations in public places, especially when there is background noise.
When the television volume or music is loud enough for you to hear comfortably, it is too loud for others in the room.
Errors have occurred because information or instructions were not heard correctly.
Telephone conversations are difficult because it's hard to hear the other party.
You fail to hear the doorbell, kitchen timer, alarm clock, or other appliance.
Today, more people than ever before are dealing with hearing loss. In fact, the numbers are staggering -- more than 30 million baby boomers, another 9 million seniors, and some 2 million young people. Worldwide, the numbers soar to 500 million -- including 70 million Europeans—making hearing loss the number one disability in the world.
Hearing's Two Worst Enemies: Aging and Noise
The epidemic levels of hearing loss can be explained partially by the fact that we are living longer and aging takes a toll on hearing. But there is a second, more dangerous hearing enemy at work, too -- noise. If you think about the world we live in, this steep increase in hearing loss is not surprising. Each and every day, the average person is assaulted by an extraordinary amount of noise. In many cases, the sources are convenience devices and appliances we depend on -- hair dryers, garbage disposals, sound-producing toys, personal music players, lawn mowers, and vacuum cleaners, to name only a few.
Sound researchers have measured the intensity of many everyday noises and made some surprising conclusions. For example:
Young people often drive cars with stereo systems that can be as noisy as a jet during takeoff.
Movie sound tracks blasting from theaters' multispeaker systems rival the sound levels of power saws.
The roar of a garbage disposal is nearly as earsplitting as a tractor engine.
Hair dryers can blow away sandblasters, in terms of volume.
The ear-piercing sounds made by certain children's toys are just about off the charts, sometimes matching air-raid sirens in intensity.
An evening in a karaoke bar can cost a lot in terms of hearing. The combined effects of singing and music can go well above 95 decibels (dB).
If you're going to the gym, choose your aerobics classes carefully—and get a spot as far from the speakers as possible. Noise levels from a gym's sound system frequently hit the 90+ dB range.
Common Sounds in Decibels
15: The average threshold of human hearing (although some people can hear sounds in the 0 to 15 dB range)
20: The sound of a human whisper
50-60: Normal conversation
75: A typical vacuum cleaner
85-90: The point at which hearing damage begins (e.g., a hair dryer or a quiet lawn mower)
100: Power saw
120: Snowmobile engine, jackhammer, chain saw
135: A jet on takeoff, amplified music
140: Gunshot, emergency sirens, threshold of noise-induced pain
Since many tools and toys are commonplace, we tend to take the constant din for granted. In fact, we are so accustomed to noise that silence has become suspicious. Reportedly, back in the 1940s, a silent vacuum cleaner, equipped with an efficient but noiseless induction motor, failed to impress buyers; no one believed that a suction device could work without making noise.
NOISE IN THE WORKPLACE
Work-related noise is the leading occupational disease, and experts estimate that about 30 million Americans are exposed to toxic noise levels at work. Furthermore, 10 million people have hearing loss caused by excessive noise at work, according to the Deafness Research Foundation (DRF; www.drf.org). Even the quiet country life is hard to find, thanks to noise from farm machinery. And as a recent Minnesota survey found, farmers are feeling the effects. Fully two-thirds of those queried not long ago had moderate or significant hearing loss.
Bottom line: Hearing's greatest enemy is damage caused by aging. But today, noise is a close second, increasing the likelihood that millions of people will be forced to cope with impaired hearing before middle age even begins.
Since good hearing is essential to the learning process, children and young people are particularly affected by hearing difficulties. Unfortunately, many children with poor hearing are misdiagnosed as having learning disabilities. The hearing problems are never identified or corrected, leading to a vicious cycle with potentially serious complications, including social problems, unwarranted disciplinary actions, and major emotional difficulties.
Frequently, those children whose hearing loss is discovered and corrected don't fare much better, because wearing hearing aids sets them apart from their peers at a time when being different is difficult at best. Says the mother of a nine-year-old boy who suffers from hearing loss: "Having hearing aids at such an early age is a tremendous problem. Kids are so mean about his need for help. He's a bright, normal child except for his hearing, and they treat him like he's from another planet."
The Hidden Costs of Hearing Loss
Clearly, hearing loss is more than an inconvenience. Like all ailments, difficulties with hearing take a personal and public toll. But while experts have calculated the costs to society of various health concerns, such as heart disease, obesity, and diabetes, no one tallies the economic costs of hearing loss. If we added up hearing-loss-related costs—errors made, the time spent correcting them, faulty products that have to be discarded and redone, information that never reaches the right destination, all creating delays, additional expenditures, overtime charges, and so on—it's safe to assume that the grand total would easily reach billions of dollars every year. The U.S. Navy alone estimates its own costs related to noise-induced hearing loss at approximately $1 billion annually, a mind-numbing figure, and further proof that this is a problem that has reached epidemic proportions.
While we may never know exactly how much money hearing loss is leaching from our economy, we do know a few things:
According to an in-depth study published in the International Journal of Technology Assessment in Health Care 2000, between 500,000 and 750,000 Americans suffer from severe to profound hearing loss, which costs society nearly $300,000 per person during each individual's life. The grand total is well into the trillions of dollars.
The earlier hearing loss is diagnosed, the more costly it is. Expenditures for social services, specialized education, and treatment of a hearing-impaired child can easily run as high as $1 million over that child's lifetime.
Hearing difficulty is the second most common complaint (after arthritis) reported to doctors by elderly patients.
It has been estimated that nearly 13 percent of all soldiers being sent home from Operation Iraqi Freedom are suffering from hearing-related trauma. Furthermore, about one-fourth of America's combat personnel develop significant hearing loss, and the condition is now one of the top ten disabilities for Veterans Affairs.
As serious as the economic cost of hearing loss may be, it cannot compete with the emotional toll. People who live with diminished hearing and those who share their lives—as spouses and partners, co-workers, friends, relatives, clients, and neighbors—consider hearing loss emotionally devastating.
THE PEACE AND QUIET MOVEMENT
The importance of maintaining a quiet community is becoming recognized all over the country. Neighbors of the Michigan State Fairgrounds near Detroit, for example, successfully fought plans for an Indy-style auto racing track that would have funneled millions of dollars into the area. Why? They were opposed to the noise that would have been generated by the race cars and added traffic to the area. Similarly, in New York City, where noise is a serious problem, city officials are cracking down on noise polluters with a new noise code, designed to incorporate high-tech acoustic technology and update sections of the existing code.
For more than a decade, Carren Stika, Ph.D., of National University in La Jolla, California, has studied the psychosocial impact of hearing loss. One of her recent research projects examines how hearing loss affects work and career. Preliminary findings show about one-third of those with hearing difficulties feel incompetent or stressed at work, yet almost 40 percent of these individuals say they would "rarely" or "almost never" ask for an adjustment or accommodation because of it. Why? Because they're embarrassed to admit that they don't hear well.
With hearing loss, carrying on a conversation turns into an exercise in frustration. Business meetings, seminars, conferences, and phone calls become major sources of stress. Misunderstanding directions can be disastrous. Even lunch in a busy restaurant is more than some people with hearing problems can endure.
A fifty-two-year-old advertising copywriter, for example, remembers a particularly painful experience, when she was one of the final contenders for a staff job at a major advertising agency. The human resources director invited her to lunch with a few people from the company. "At first, everything was great," she says. "But as the restaurant started filling up, it became harder and harder for me to hear the people sitting on the other side of the table.
"I knew one of the women slightly and knew that her husband had just had an operation, so I asked how he was. I thought she said, 'The doctor said he's doing fine,' and I told her that was excellent and I was very glad to hear it. Everyone turned and looked at me like I was out of my mind. Finally, the woman next to me said, 'I think you misunderstood. The doctor said her husband is going blind.'
"Of course, I apologized profusely. But I was mortified. I didn't talk again during lunch, and I didn't get the job, either."
Losing Hearing, Losing Friends
While careers can be compromised by hearing loss, leisure activities are affected by an inability to hear, too. Nearly all entertainment relies on hearing, but you can't turn up the volume at plays, movie theaters, or concerts. Is it any surprise that people with hearing loss often prefer isolation to struggling through social functions and entertainment venues outside the home?
Ted and his wife, Jean, had been regular churchgoers until Jean's hearing began to deteriorate. At first, she claimed her reluctance to go out was because the winter weather had made driving too dangerous. But when spring arrived, she was forced to admit that the real reason she didn't want to attend services any longer was that she couldn't hear the sermon or manage conversations during the social hour afterward. As retirees in a small town with no family nearby, Ted and Jean had limited social opportunities to begin with. Eliminating churchgoing from their week left them virtually isolated and out of touch with a group of people they had enjoyed.
I heard Ted and Jean's story from Jean's brother, Bill. He came to see me because his wife had fallen down the basement stairs recently and sprained her ankle, but he hadn't heard her cries for help because the radio volume had been so loud. That was all the motivation Bill needed to do something about his hearing, which had been steadily declining. After a long bout with the flu, he felt his hearing had taken a serious hit. "What if my wife had a heart attack or who knows what and I didn't hear her?" he explained. "Plus, I don't want to end up like my sister and brother-in-law, sitting in the house with the TV blasting all day because they can't have a conversation with anyone."
After several months on the Save Your Hearing Now Program, Bill's hearing stabilized, and he was so encouraged that he recommended it to Jean and Ted. "I hope they follow through on it," Bill said. "If they don't do something soon, I'm afraid they'll become completely deaf in a few years."
Needless to say, individuals with hearing loss aren't the only ones who suffer. Family members, friends, and co-workers are frustrated, too, as they are forced to repeat themselves, deal with uncomfortably loud televisions and radios, and worry about whether important information was heard or not. "I was so tired of repeating myself whenever I spoke to my husband that I began avoiding conversations with him," recalls one woman whose husband's hearing deteriorated sharply when he was in his late fifties. "He thought I was angry, but I just couldn't take it anymore."
Or the opposite problem may occur. Some individuals with hearing loss worry about talking too loudly and end up speaking so softly it's difficult to hear them, creating even more frustration for those around them.
With today's longer life spans and our increasingly noisy world, everyone's hearing is at risk. So the sooner we begin to preserve our hearing and work at correcting hearing loss, the better. Unfortunately for some, hearing devices are necessary. Major strides in technology have made these devices smaller and more sophisticated than ever before, but they are still not stylish or chic (like glasses can be, for instance), and there is definitely a stigma attached to wearing them. (From my perspective, I find the attitude that hearing aids are embarrassing completely inappropriate. Hearing aids are immensely helpful for people with hearing difficulties, and no one should feel ashamed about correcting the problem by wearing one.) Fortunately for many hearing loss sufferers -- even some of the ones who have or may need hearing devices -- there are now proven methods of protecting and even rehabilitating your hearing. Whether you are young or old, have hearing loss or are worried about developing it, this program is for you.
The Save Your Hearing Now Program incorporates antioxidant and mitochondrial-enhancing supplements and foods that provide vitally important nutrients that protect and rejuvenate cells throughout the body, as well as physical activity and other lifestyle measures that bolster their effects. Hundreds of studies have shown that such a treatment regimen can have a profound effect on the damage caused by aging, pollution, poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, and stress. Far too few of us -- including those who eat carefully -- are getting sufficient quantities of the right substances or physical activity, but the Save Your Hearing Now Program is designed to help you incorporate all the necessary nutrients and lifestyle changes in order to obtain optimal -- or much-improved -- hearing health. Hundreds of patients have experienced significant improvements in their hearing with this easy, inexpensive approach, which is equally effective for all age groups. The dramatic results that are possible with this program are truly creating a revolution in the treatment of hearing loss. But before we get into the details of the SaveYour Hearing Now Program, let's take an in-depth look at how the amazing process of hearing works.
Copyright © 2006 by Michael D. Seidman, MD, FACS, and Marie Moneysmith