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Hearing loss affects 1 in 5 Americans: how to protect your ears

Source: Washington Metropolitan Airport Authority

About one in five Americans over age 12 have some form of hearing loss -- enough to impair their ability to communicate with others, according to a a study published this week in the Archives of Internal Medicine. The researchers analyzed hearing tests randomly conducted on more than 7,000 Americans and found that, in addition to those who had some hearing loss, nearly 13 percent had hearing loss in both ears.

Everyday activities like clearing leaves with leaf blowers can produce enough noise to destroy hearing over time. “Researchers have measured decibel levels of 97 to 101 for leaf blowers, which is certainly loud enough to be dangerous, “ said Ackland Jones, audiologist at Mass Eye and Ear. Ditto for lawn mowers and snowblowers as well as recreational vehicles, motorcyles, jet skis, and power tools. “It’s absolutely recommended that people wear ear plugs when using these devices.”


Damage from noise exposure is cumulative, which means that every rock concert you attended, driveway you cleared with a snowblower, and power drill you’ve handled have collectively kill off hairs cells in the inner ear that sense sound and send messages to the brain. “Once you’ve damaged these cells, there’s no way to repair them,” said Jones. “The result can be permanent hearing loss.”

Noise-induced hearing loss can result from a one-time exposure to a very loud sound -- like rock concerts which typically have music blaring at or above 120 decibels -- or by hearing moderately loud noises -- at or above 85 decibels -- on a regular basis, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The best way to keep your hearing intact, said Jones, is through prevention. Wear ear plugs or ear muffs designed to filter out noise whenever you’re going to be engaged in a loud activity. That includes rock concerts since these devices won’t completely block out all noise but will just attenuate the decibel level to a safer range.


Ear plugs range from $2 to $3 for the disposable kind to beyond $150 for those that are custom fitted. Jones said they all work pretty well as long as you get a tight fit and good seal. “The foam ear plugs can be tricky since you have to roll them down as far as you can so it fills the entire ear canal,” Jones said. “It helps if you can put your opposite hand over your head and pull up and out on ear to straighten out ear canal to get a better insert.”

If you can’t get a good fit with foam, you can try silicone ear plugs or rubber flanges (priced similarly to foam plugs) both sold in hardware stores and drugstores. Ear muffs designed for sound attenuation are another option, and they start at about $15.

While many people don’t notice subtle changes in their hearing, those that do should be evaluated by a physician. They should also get evaluated if they experience ringing in their ears, a condition called tinnitus that can also be caused by exposure to loud noise.

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.