En español | Almost everyone experiences some hearing loss as they age. But many older adults may not realize that their day-to-day activities could be further damaging their hearing, experts say.
About one in five adults ages 20 to 69 has suffered permanent damage to their hearing from exposure to loud noise, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) analysis. About 53 percent of those reported no job-related noise exposure, meaning they damaged their hearing doing things at home or in the community, like using a leaf blower or going to concerts.
Loud noise destroys the tiny hair cells in your inner ear, and they don't regenerate, says Debara Tucci, director of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. “The louder the sound, the less time it takes to damage your hearing,” she says.
An explosive noise, such as a gunshot or firecracker, can cause immediate, irreversible hearing impairment, but repeated exposure to moderately loud sounds can also cause noise-induced hearing loss.
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About one in three people ages 65 to 74 has hearing loss, and nearly half of those over age 75 have difficulty hearing, according to the National Institute on Aging. At least some of that age-related hearing loss is likely due to noise damage accumulated over a lifetime, says Erika Woodson, section head of otology, neurotology and lateral skullbase surgery, and medical director for the hearing implant program at the Cleveland Clinic. Other factors also affect your hearing as you age, including genetics and changes to the inner ear and along the nerve pathways from the ear to the brain.
"The best thing you can do to prevent [your hearing] from getting worse is to avoid exposure to excess noise,” Woodson says.
Noise-induced hearing loss first affects how well you hear high-frequency sounds — in the 4,000 Hz range — such as the beep of your microwave or your car blinker. If the damage continues, it will start to become more difficult to understand speech, especially in places where there's background noise, like in a restaurant.
Detecting high-pitched consonants such as “s,” “f,” “g,” “t” and “z” can be particularly difficult for those with noise-induced hearing loss, says Robert Sataloff, chair of the Department of Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery and senior associate dean for clinical academic specialties at the Drexel University College of Medicine. “The low frequencies that hear vowels are usually preserved,” he says, “but they can't tell if someone said ‘yes’ or ‘get.’ “
Many people with noise-related hearing loss also experience ringing in their ears, called tinnitus.
Of course, your ears also have a way of signaling danger. If you come out of a concert or sporting event and it feels like your ears are full of cotton or you have some ringing in your ear, that's noise damage, Woodson says.
What is too loud?
Studies show prolonged or repeated exposure to sounds above 85 decibels (dB) — about the loudness of a gas-powered lawn mower — can affect your ability to hear. “If you need to raise your voice to be heard at an arm's length, the noise level in the environment is likely above 85 decibels in sound intensity and could damage your hearing over time,” according to the CDC. The higher the decibel level, the less time you can be exposed to a noise and be safe, Woodson explains. A noise that is 80 to 85 decibels starts to harm the hair cells in your inner ear after about two hours. But sound at 110 decibels — the maximum volume on some smartphones — can destroy those cells in about 5 minutes.
Here are some common recreational activities that can harm your hearing, and how to protect your ears if you do them.
1. Hunting or target shooting (140-175 dB).
A single gunshot blast is so loud that it can cause lasting hearing loss or tinnitus, experts say. Yet a study published in The Laryngoscope found that only 58.5 percent of adults who use firearms always use hearing protection and that 21.4 percent of them never do. To protect your hearing at firing ranges, experts recommend wearing earmuffs as well as foam earplugs. Make sure you put on the protection before you even set foot on the range, Woodson says. “I've had patients lose hearing because someone shot a gun next to them before they had their hearing protection on.”
2. Attending a live music event — even a classical one (110-130 dB).
One study found that sound levels at live music performances average around 112 decibels, with peak levels of 127 decibels. That's why many professional musicians — including Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton and Neil Young — have hearing loss. Yet more than four out of five U.S. adults never or seldom wear hearing protection when attending a loud athletic or entertainment event, a CDC survey shows. Surprisingly, the CDC found that adults younger than 35 were significantly more likely to protect their ears than older adults. Woodson says it's not just rock concerts you need to worry about. “Even if you go to the symphony,” she says, “parts of it will be too loud.”
3. Going to a game (90-140 dB).
You might know to protect your ears at a car race, but studies show the noise at other types of sporting events can also reach dangerous levels — even if you're at an outdoor venue. A University of Michigan study found the sound levels at baseball games averaged 94 decibels but could be as high as 114 decibels. At a Kansas City Chiefs football game in 2014, the crowd noise was measured at 142.2 decibels, setting the Guinness world record for crowd roar at a sports stadium.
4. Woodworking and home projects (90-112 dB).
Many older adults who enjoy woodworking and other kinds of home renovation projects may not realize that power tools can cause hearing damage. A typical circular saw can damage your hearing in just one minute, the CDC says, while shop vacuums, table saws and sanders take a toll over time.
5. Using a gas-powered lawn mower, leaf blower or snow blower (85-100 dB).
Lawn mowers typically register at 80 to 85 decibels — the threshold for hearing damage — while leaf blowers and snow blowers can be as loud as 100 decibels. Listening to music through headphones while you mow is especially dangerous, Woodson says, because you turn the volume even louder to hear the music over the sound of the mower. If you wear hearing aids, make sure you take them out while using loud equipment so they don't amplify the noise and cause further damage.
6. Boating or motorcycle riding (80-100 dB).
A motorcycle engine is about 95 decibels, the CDC says, while a speedboat's outboard motor can be as loud as 100 decibels. The wind noise that occurs when you're moving at high speed can further damage your hearing. Fortunately, many states now have rules limiting boat engines to 85 or 90 decibels, and you can buy a kit to muffle your motor. If you're a motorcycle rider, look for earplugs with special filters that limit wind noise but still allow you to hear sirens, horns and other important sounds.
7. Listening to music with headphones or earbuds (up to 110 dB).
Many devices have a maximum volume of 110 decibels, a level that can harm your hearing in just 5 minutes. Using earbuds that fit inside your ear are especially dangerous because the sound energy goes directly into your ear canal, Sataloff says. As a rule of thumb, “If it's loud enough that the person standing next to you can hear what you're listening to,” he says, “it's loud enough to damage your hearing.”
8. Exercise class (80-116 dB).
Fitness trainers in group exercise classes often crank up the volume to levels that can hurt your hearing, especially if the class is held in a small indoor space. A study of 17 indoor cycling classes in the Boston area found noise levels to be over 100 decibels for an average of almost 32 minutes per class. Tucci, who takes aerobics classes, says she sometimes asks the instructor to turn down the volume.
How to protect your hearing
Consider downloading a smartphone app to measure the sound in your environment, Tucci says. Then carry a pair of disposable foam earplugs you can pop in anytime you're in a noisy environment. To get the most protection, remember to first roll each earplug into a small thin “snake,” and then use your other hand to pull the top of your ear up and back while you slide it into your ear, Tucci says. Hold it there until it expands to fill the ear canal.
Another option is to invest in a pair of over-the-ear muffs. If you're going to be in an extremely loud situation, like at a shooting range or at an airfield, you may want to double up and wear both.
If you're a musician or a live music fan, look for “high fidelity” or “flat response” earplugs. Rather than muffling sound and filtering out some frequencies, they are specially constructed to reduce the volume while maintaining overall sound quality.
Michelle Crouch is a contributing writer who has covered health and personal finance for some of the nation's top consumer publications. Her work has appeared in Reader's Digest, Real Simple, Prevention, The Washington Post and The New York Times.