If you are over 40 and have trouble hearing clearly in certain situations, you’ve got plenty of company. Fourteen percent of people between the ages of 45 and 64 have some hearing loss, and 30 percent of those over 65 do, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). Usually, this stems from getting older and being exposed to loud sounds over many decades.
“It’s important to understand that hearing loss from noise exposure is cumulative, so everything you’ve been exposed to for 50 years adds up over time,” says Sarah Sydlowski, audiology director of the hearing implant program at the Cleveland Clinic. “Once hearing is gone, it can’t be replaced.” However, you can take steps to protect the hearing you have now. Here are four everyday steps to take.
Lower the volume on personal music devices. “We see a lot of damage from people turning up the volume too much on iPhones,” says Landon Duyka, an ear, nose and throat physician at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Illinois. His recommendation: If you listen to music with earphones, follow the 60/60 rule — 60 decibels for 60 minutes or less per day. To put this in context, normal speech registers at about 60 decibels, a blow-dryer or kitchen blender at around 80 to 90 decibels, power tools at 100 decibels, and a jackhammer at 130 decibels.
Muffle loud sounds. Wear earplugs when attending concerts or loud group-fitness classes (spin class, anyone?) or when working with lawn mowers, leaf blowers, snowblowers or other noisy equipment. To be effective, the plugs need to fit properly. For occasional use, disposable foam earplugs (available in stores or online) may be sufficient. To place them properly, roll them up tightly and insert them into the ear canal as you pull back the back of your ear; the sides of the foam plugs should be flush with the sides of your ear canal, Sydlowski explains.
For extremely loud sounds, consider investing in musicians’ earplugs, which can reduce the volume by 30 decibels, or in protective earmuffs. “Being exposed to moderately loud sounds for a long period of time or to extremely loud sounds for a short period of time can damage hearing — 85 decibels is the cutoff for what you can safely be around for eight hours,” Sydlowski says. For every 3-decibel increase above that, the safe listening time drops in half. (For specific decibel-exposure-time recommendations, go to dangerousdecibels.org.) For very loud sounds, you can double up with earplugs and muffs, Sydlowski says. “The louder the sound, the better it is to have that extra protection.”
Tend to your overall health. If you smoke, quit — because the habit can harm your hearing by impairing circulation, Sydlowski says. Similarly, certain underlying health conditions (such as high blood pressure, heart disease, thyroid disorders and diabetes) can contribute to hearing loss by compromising blood flow. Ménière’s disease (a disorder of the inner ear) and shingles can take a toll on your hearing if they affect the structures in your inner ear; it’s important to get these treated promptly for the sake of your hearing, Duyka says. Also, some medications — including some chemotherapy drugs, antibiotics, erectile dysfunction drugs and high doses of aspirin — can be ototoxic (meaning toxic to the ear). If you notice a change in your hearing while taking one of these drugs, be sure to tell your doctor.
Check the volume around you. There are good-quality sound level apps you can download onto your smartphone to gauge the noise levels wherever you are, Sydlowski says. These include Sound Meter for Androids, the NIOSH Sound Level Meter for iOS devices and Decibel 10 for iPhone and iPad. By using one of these to assess the sound level at work, the gym or a convention, you can make a well-informed decision about whether you’d be wise to pop in a pair of earplugs.