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Seven ways to protect your hearing

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Hearing loss can happen at any age. But with a few smart steps, you can protect your ears for years to come.

Music is a perfect way to escape when you need a break. And there's nothing like listening to your own personal concert.

But listening to loud music or other sounds can take a toll on your ears over time. In fact, 13% of Americans 18 and older report some trouble hearing. That number more than doubles to 26.8% for adults age 65 and older.1 Even though it becomes more common as you age, hearing loss can start at any time in your life.

It’s important to do something if you notice a change. When hearing loss is left untreated, it can lead to other health problems. It increases the risk of depression, falls and dementia (memory loss). Hearing problems can also affect your relationships with loved ones.

“Prevention is key to preserving your hearing,” says Seth Brown, MD. He’s the medical director at Optum Care in Farmington, Connecticut.

And it’s never too late to start. Learn more about how hearing loss happens. Then take some simple steps to protect your ears.

How does hearing loss happen?

Loud noises can harm sensitive sound-detecting hair cells inside the ear. Sometimes they can also damage your auditory nerve. That’s what carries sound signals from your ear to your brain.2,3 Other things can increase your risk of hearing loss as well, including:

  • Aging
  • Genes (your family history)
  • Viruses 
  • Other health conditions such as diabetes

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Smart steps to protect your hearing

Pay attention to noise level. The first step is to become more aware of the noise around you. Maybe you’re used to vacuuming with the TV on while the dishwasher runs in the background. Each of those things may not be too loud on its own. But combined, they could easily push above 85 decibels (db).

Think of 85db as a red line. If you’re exposed to sounds at this level or higher for more than eight hours, you could damage your hearing.4

And any noise louder than that can cause hearing problems even faster. Here are some activities that are usually louder than 85db:

  • Mowing the lawn
  • Going to the movies
  • Attending a concert
  • Listening to headphones
  • Watching fireworks
  • Using power tools

The more your ears hear noises this loud, the higher your chance of hurting your hearing. Now, are you doomed after one rock concert? No. The risk comes with the amount of exposure over time. But even if you only do some of these things a few times a year, it’s worth using protection.

Any sound at 70db or lower is safe to listen to for as long as you want.4 And many noises inside your home are in this safe zone. For example, the vacuum cleaner is around 70db, and the dishwasher is 60db. The key is to limit the number of noisy activities happening at the same time. So turn off the TV before you clean the rug.

Cover your ears. Safety earmuffs and noise-canceling headphones can protect your hearing. They’re especially important to use when doing loud activities. For example, cutting the grass or using a power saw.

You can also try ear plugs. Consider bringing them to your next concert. In a pinch, you could even pop in your ear buds (sound off) to help block the sound.

Be safe at work. Loud activities at your job may be unavoidable. So it’s important to know your rights to protection. “The Occupational Safety and Health Administration [OSHA] has strict rules on how long you can hear loud noises at work,” says Dr. Brown.

Companies must offer protection if noise levels are at or above 85db over eight hours. This protection is known as a hearing conservation program.5 If you’re worried about noise at work, reach out to your human resources office. Ask what services are available to you.

Set volume limits. If you’re using your headphones or watching TV, set the volume to 60% or less.6 Most electronics and smartphones let you set an upper limit to volume. That way, you don’t have to worry about accidentally going louder.

What if you need to have loud audio on for long periods of time? Take breaks and wear extra protection if necessary.

Eat for your ears. “Turns our eating lots of fatty foods can increase your risk of hearing loss,” says Dr. Brown. That’s because high-fat meals can lead to blockages that limit blood flow to your ears.7

On the flipside, eating plenty of fruits and veggies can lower your risk of hearing loss by as much as 30%.7

Quit smoking. Like the rest of your body, your ears depend on healthy blood flow. Using tobacco products can damage your blood vessels. It can make it harder for blood to circulate. But when you quit, your risk of hearing loss can decrease by 20%.8

Get your hearing checked. Your risk of hearing loss goes up with age. Regular testing as you get older can help protect your ears. Consider getting a general ear test starting in your 60s. (Learn more about other screening tests that can help keep you healthy.)

Anyone who has a problem hearing should also get their ears tested. Signs of possible hearing loss that are worth a visit to your doctor include:

  • Reduced hearing in one ear
  • Ringing or buzzing in one or both ears (tinnitus)
  • Dizziness

“Any sudden hearing changes or start of tinnitus should be tested within 24 hours,” says Dr. Brown.

If you do show signs of hearing loss, talk to your doctor about your options. 

Sources

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hearing difficulties among adults: United States, 2019. Last reviewed July 28,2021. Accessed September 19, 2022.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Types of hearing loss. Last reviewed July 18, 2022. Accessed August 1, 2022.
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How does loud noise cause hearing loss? Last reviewed November 24, 2020. Accessed August 7, 2022.
  4. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Loud noise dangers. Accessed August 1, 2022.
  5. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Occupational noise exposure. Accessed July 11, 2022.
  6. Hearing Health Foundation. Headphone and earbud safety #KeepListening. Accessed July 11, 2022.
  7. American Journal of Epidemiology. Prospective study of dietary patterns and hearing threshold elevation. Published October 14, 2019. Accessed August 1, 2022.
  8. Nicotine and Tobacco Research. Smoking, smoking cessation, and the risk of hearing loss: Japan epidemiology collaboration on occupational health study. Last reviewed March 30, 2019. Accessed July 11, 2022.

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