When you can’t hear as well as you used to, it’s not just frustrating — it’s alienating, too. At the dinner table, surrounded by friends (and noise), you somehow feel out of it, separate.
Often hearing loss is so gradual you don’t realize it’s happening. This can contribute to “feelings of loneliness and social isolation,” says Maria Pomponio, a clinical audiologist at Weill Cornell Medicine, New York-Presbyterian Hospital.
While it’s true that aging can cause hearing loss — it affects about one-third of Americans between ages 65 and 74 and nearly half of those older than 75, according to the National Institutes of Health — it’s important to protect what you’ve got and to preserve it for as long as you can. And fortunately, some hearing loss is preventable. “There is definitely reason for hope,” Pomponio says.
Here are six behaviors that can hurt your hearing.
1. Delaying a doctor’s visit
Notice a change in your hearing? Don’t put off a trip to the doctor’s office.
If you don’t seek treatment for your hearing loss — and many older adults underestimate how bad their hearing truly is, research shows — you’re at a greater risk for falls, hospital visits, anxiety and depression, as well as for higher levels of inactivity and higher health care costs.
Plus, protecting your hearing — and getting treatment — is one of the biggest changes you can make to lower your risk for developing dementia, the Lancet Commission’s 2020 report found.
“Never ignore a change in hearing,” says Lindsay S. Creed, an audiologist and associate director of audiology practices at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. That includes hearing better in one ear than the other or developing tinnitus (a ringing, hissing or buzzing in one or both ears). “It should not be brushed off as normal and left untreated,” Creed says.
And since hearing loss can be inherited, you should get tested regularly and keep an eye (er, ear) on it. You might even consider genetic testing to tell whether family might be a factor.
If your hearing loss comes on suddenly, make an appointment with a doctor as soon as possible. Even a two-week delay could decrease the likelihood that medications could help improve the problem, according to experts at Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Here’s yet another reason to stop smoking: It often comes with hearing difficulties, too. A study in Japan followed more than 50,000 workers ages 20 to 64, none of whom had hearing loss. But several years later, the researchers found, many of the 10 percent (5,107 people) of participants who developed hearing issues were smokers. In fact, smokers were up to 60 percent more likely than nonsmokers to have high-frequency hearing loss, which can make conversation difficult.
The number of cigarettes smoked mattered, too: Smoking up to 10 cigarettes a day made high-frequency hearing loss 40 percent more likely, 11 to 20 cigarettes a day raised the risk 60 percent, and more than 20 cigarettes raised the risk 70 percent. (The participants self-reported their cigarette use.)
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The smokers who participated were more likely to experience other factors that have been associated with hearing loss: a higher body-mass index (BMI), chronic health issues and a noisy workplace.
The study follows other research that has found associations between smoking and hearing loss, from older people with diabetes to teens exposed to secondhand smoke, though the link may not hold across various gender and age groups, and warrants more research.
3. Taking ototoxic medications
More than 100 classes of drugs can hurt your hearing — and sometimes the loss can be permanent. Much of the time, though, the issues resolve once you stop taking the medication. Drug-induced hearing loss might begin as tinnitus (hearing a ringing, buzzing or whooshing even though nothing is making that sound) and move on to balance issues, dizziness and vertigo.
The severity and permanence of the damage depends on various factors: dose, noise exposure, even genetics. This side effect is more common with some drugs than others. If any of the following drugs are in your medicine cabinet and you become concerned about your hearing, talk to your doctor.
- ACE inhibitors
- Benzodiazepines (especially tinnitus)
- Hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine
- Aminoglycoside antibiotics (streptomycin, neomycin, gentamicin)
- Chemotherapy drugs (cisplatin and carboplatin)
- The antimalarial drug quinine
- Loop diuretics (furosemide or bumetanide)
- Salicylate pain medications (like aspirin), though only in large doses (8 to 12 pills daily)
- Tricyclic antidepressants and potentially SSRIs (especially tinnitus)
- NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), such as ibuprofen and naproxen
If you need to take these drugs, make sure to “obtain a baseline hearing test prior to beginning use of the medication,” Creed says, “and let your doctor know immediately if you begin to experience any symptoms.”
4. Using an ear mold kit
Though hearing aids aren’t yet available over the counter — you many be able to find them in stores and online as soon as this year — some retailers do sell ear mold kits for creating customized hearing instruments, such as earplugs.
Many of these products require making a mold of your ear, and this isn’t exactly like a standard, do-it-yourself mouthguard kit. In this case, you’ll need to apply the impression goop in an extra-sensitive spot, where a lot can go wrong.
“If this is done improperly, it can cause pain, injury, additional hearing loss or necessitate surgical removal of the material,” Creed says.
That’s the job for an audiologist — don’t do this at home.
5. Not keeping your ears clear
Everyone knows that noise causes hearing loss, but lawn mowers, power tools and gun ranges aren’t the only culprits. Be careful about the volume in your headphones — and try to keep the level under 60 percent of the maximum, the World Health Organization recommends.
Other Causes of Hearing Loss
By 2050, nearly 2.5 billion people worldwide will have some degree of hearing loss, according to the World Health Organization. Here are some other contributors.
- Chronic diseases
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Otosclerosis (abnormal bone growth inside the ear)
- Viral infections
- Head or ear trauma
Source: World Health Organization
It’s important to take your headphones off and give your ears a break — and it lowers the likelihood you’ll experience not-so-pleasant impacted earwax, which itself can cause ringing and temporary hearing loss (until it’s removed, either at the doctor’s office or via an over-the-counter irrigation kit, which are “generally considered safe,” Creed says).
Don’t try to dig the earwax out yourself. No, not even with a Q-tip.
Referencing a familiar phrase, Pomponio offers the advice: “Never put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear.” She adds, “These tools can push earwax further into the ear canal, worsening its buildup over time, and can potentially cause damage to the eardrum — both of which can result in hearing loss.”
And using one headphone instead of two isn’t necessarily better; you might end up blasting the volume to compensate, which can be damaging. Whether you’re using cordless headphones or a Bluetooth speaker, try to check the volume every so often — a good podcast, audiobook or playlist might be so absorbing that you don’t realize how loud it actually is. That goes for the TV, too.
“It is important to remember that a single exposure to a dangerously loud sound can cause irreversible hearing damage,” Creed says. “All it takes is one exposure.”
6. Denial and embarrassment
Only about 30 percent of people 70 and older with hearing loss wear a hearing aid, even though it could improve their quality of life, research shows. “People often wait years after being diagnosed with hearing loss before obtaining hearing aids,” Pomponio says.
Embarrassment is often a factor, as stigma has long surrounded aging and, with it, hearing loss. However, experts at Johns Hopkins Medicine point out that connecting with others by way of improved hearing “can help your brain stay younger and keep you involved with life.” Plus, thanks to technological advancements, hearing aids are more discreet than ever before.