Hearing loss is on the rise

Print More

(Host) Most people are bombarded by noise. There’s traffic, sirens, power saws and leaf blowers. Too much noise is the number one cause of hearing loss, affecting 36 million Americans.

As VPR’s Nina Keck reports – that number is expected to increase by more than 50% over the next 25 years.

(Keck) Think of all the times you’ve had to shout to be heard. Barbara Kirk is a Rutland audiologist – that’s a hearing specialist. She says over time, all that noise adds up.

(Kirk) "The thing about hearing loss is that you don’t feel it. There’s no pain in your inner ear."

(Keck) Here’s the really scary part.

(Kirk)"It’s not repairable. There’s no medicine you can take for it, there’s no surgery. Once you have it its permanent."

(Keck) The inner ear looks a bit like a snail shell. The inside of its coiled walls are covered by thousands of tiny hair cells. Kirk says that when you turn up your I-pod, work a chain saw without hearing protection or sit for hours in a loud movie theater; those tiny cells take a beating.

(Kirk)"If you think of these tiny hair cells as tiny blades of grass on your lawn and you tromp over this lawn and play football on this lawn a lot. Pretty soon you have a lot of damage to the lawn or you have long pathways without any grass and that’s exactly what’s happening in the inner ear."

(Keck) Because of the way the inner ear is designed, higher pitched sounds are picked up near the outer edge while the lowest sounds register deep inside the ear. Because sound waves hit the outer part of the ear first, Barbara Kirk says high pitched noises are often the first to be lost.

(Kirk)"In terms of speech there’s a lot of high frequency important meaning up there – SSs, ch p sss, t, ch – All those sounds are up there. So, when you don’t hear them very well, it sounds like everybody’s mumbling."

(Keck) Bob Hartenstein, another Rutland audiologist, says that while this used to be a problem affecting mostly older Americans. That’s changing.

(Hartenstein) "We certainly are seeing people at a younger age coming into the office – the 40 year olds are coming in and some 30 year olds are coming in on a regular basis saying they’re frustrated with their hearing and they need to get help.

(Keck) Hearing aids have come a long way. Older models plugged the entire ear canal and boosted all noise. Hartenstein says the new digital styles are much thinner – taking up only a small part of the hearing canal. This allows natural hearing to continue while tiny microphones selectively boost higher frequencies.

(Hartenstein)"Benefits are great and patient satisfaction is very high with those."

(Keck) Prices for hearing aids vary – but expect to pay anywhere from one to five thousand dollars a pair – and no insurance doesn’t usually cover them. Some worry that with so many young people blasting their car stereos and I-pods that there will be a surge in demand for hearing aids in the not too distant future. Audiologist Bob Hartenstein says studies looking into possible damage from MP3 players and I-pods remain controversial and inconclusive. He says it will likely be years before we see any measurable trends. Still, he and Barbara Kirk are worried about the potential for harm.

(Kirk) "I have an I-pod and I love it. But yes, I am. I watch my son and he’s mowing the lawn and he has his I-pod in. Now the lawnmower is very loud and he needs to hear his music above that. And I go running out and say you can’t do that."

(Keck) Because of the permanent nature of hearing loss, experts in the field say prevention remains the best ways to combat the problem. The American Academy of Audiology recently released a special hip hop CD to highlight the dangers of hearing loss to young people. It’s a song they hope will be listened to carefully, not loudly.

(Hear music CD)

(Keck) For VPR News, I’m Nina Keck

Comments are closed.