Tag Archives: hearing loss

Our Fragile Hearing

More and more Americans are experiencing the social disorientation that comes with partial deafness. No longer just grandpa’s problem, its now a development affecting millions of younger Americans.

Imagine that you have a friend who has the unusual habit of glancing directly at the sun while they conversing with someone outdoors. That’s not a good thing.  Obviously, the sun is too intense for sensitive eyes, a point we would surely make to the friend.  A lifetime with such a habit will leave them with a host of eye problems, if not complete blindness.

Suppose you have another acquaintance who is rarely seen without lanyards hanging down from her ears. They are always present when she is commuting or working at her desk.  Like millions, she would rather forget her purse than not having her ear buds with her.  And because the sounds she listens to spill out beyond her ears, you can tell what music she likes.

In a sense, she is also looking into the sun. The volume level of her music is probably past a threshold where loudness so close to the ear is safe. Like one in three Americans, she on her way to hearing loss, which will mean that in a few years she will be struggling to connect in a wide variety of social settings.

Our dilemma is that we live in a loud world that our ears were not designed for. Think of noise as aural trash: stuff that piles up around us that we hardly notice less because it has no visual presence.  But its there all of the time: at music concerts where the sound is punishingly loud, or in the everyday equipment of modern life like leaf blowers, hair dryers, vacuums, and hundreds of other sources.  Previews shown in movie theaters, for example, regularly play at about 100 dB: only slightly less than standing at the end of an airport runway.  With this kind of noise, a person’s hearing will deteriorate over time.  There are bones in the middle ear to protect us from loudness.  But they are no match for what we throw at them.

Loud sound destroys the microscopic stereocilia–tiny thin cells–in the cochlea within the inner ear. They do the important work of converting sound pressure waves into nerve impulses sent to the brain.  One scientist studying the cilia of a nearly deaf person said they looked like a forest of trees that had been blown over in a storm.  But unlike a forest, they usually will not regrow.

New research points out that there are significant costs for those who have lost even a fraction of their listening acuity. With hearing loss, clinical dementia increases by 50 percent and depression by 40 percent. Overall, participants in some studies report increased feelings of isolation and disconnectedness, as documented by a reporter recounting the story of one 68-year-old woman.

[H]er world began to shrivel. She stopped going to church, since she could no longer hear the sermons. She abandoned the lectures that she used to frequent, as well as the political rallies that she had always loved. Communicating with her adult sons became an ordeal, filled with endless requests that they repeat themselves. Now considered as hazardous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, loneliness vastly raises the risks of depression, dementia and early death.

Your ears will not send messages that they are being forced into a destructive death spiral. You need to be motivated enough to protect them. Exercise a few simple precautions to stave off hearing loss.

  • Always wear ear protection at arena concerts and even professional sporting events. In my recent book, The Sonic Imperative, I reported that one baseball stadium nearby is equipped with 1400 loudspeakers. Fans notice that noise at a game is frequently over the top, since the sound system is programmed like a dance club.                                                                                                                                    
  • Always wear ear protection when using power equipment like lawnmowers, lawn trimmers, leaf blowers and even vacuum cleaners and hunting rifles.  I use a comfortable 21-dollar 3M over the ear headset.  There are even many with Bluetooth speakers in them: an incredibly dumb idea.                                                                                                                                                    
  • Carry a clean pocket tissue. When an event turns into an unexpected auditory assault, such as in a movie theater or noisy bar, it pays to have a piece of tissue that can be crushed and placed at the entrance of the ear canals, temporarily muting the racket.                                                                                         
  • When listening to music, playing games or watching videos, learn to set aside the mistaken belief that louder is always better. Heed the cautions that come with portable audio players. In many cases, loudness creates unpleasant distortion and listening fatigue.                                                                         
  • Teach your children about the fragility of hearing.  We know from studies that teens will reject requests to ‘turn it down.’ The message needs to come earlier.

The ability to hear is a wonderful gift, and modern applications of sound are full of interesting surprises.  For more insights see The Sonic Perspective: Sound in the Age of Screens, available at a low price from Amazon.com.

Giving Our Ears Their Due

Having spent the better part of the last two years writing about hearing and our sense of sound, here are a few takeaways about how we hear that may come as a surprise.

A key premise of The Sonic Imperative to be published in a few weeks is that sound is our newest sense. The widespread use of radio in the 1920s and magnetic tape recording a little later means that our modern comprehension of sound is only about 100 years old. Radio and recording made listening a prime preoccupation. Records added an additional level by making this, the most ephemeral of sense data, something that could be packaged and sold. Though streaming is the preferred way to access music today, for many of us it still matters to hold a copy of a performance in the form of a vinyl record or CD.

Here’s a few random but surprising facts about how we process sound.

  • People often say that they are “visual learners” or thinkers. We do learn from what we see. But sight is predicated on light, and we are not natural light emitters. But we were born to emit and receive sounds. It’s good to keep that in mind when we reflexively think of sight as the dominant sense. We surely need the advantages of seeing, but our basic social nature is predicated on hearing and learning spoken language.
  • Sound is created almost as much by the space it is in as by the source. Open spaces and rooms are major shapers of auditory content, with important effects. Even an expensive stereo system is going to sound crummy in a small room, or one with hard surfaces. In fact, a rooms designed to have no acoustic impact known as anechoic chambers would slowly drive most of us crazy in just a few hours.
  • A lot of music listeners have trained themselves to settle for inauthentic bass sound. They probably have listened for too long to bad audio that tends to create “one note bass.” This form of low frequency sound is a wad of noise that may be just “good enough” for a boom box or dance track. You can actually hear true bass when you can detect a distinct pitch and it’s overtones produced by a bass guitar, piano, or an organ pedal note. A low frequency bass note of 40 Hz, for example, is 28 feet long. A room shorter than that will force all of that high-energy sound to distort into indistinct one-note bass.
  • One way convenience stores disperse teens who want to hang out nearby is to employ a “Mosquito,” a proprietary “sonic canon” that emits a high-pitched sound that can only be heard by young ears. Some owners have also had success with baroque music.
  • Most Americans are careless in protecting their hearing. It is useful to remember that sound is created by zephyrs of moving air that can often only sensed by our ears. It is incredibly easy to overwhelm the tissue and tiny bones that receive those feint sound waves and send them to the nerves of the inner ear. You are probably ruining you hearing if you listen to music with tight earbuds, cutting the grass without ear protection, or using earplugs at a pop music concert. Results unfortunately include many musicians and subway workers who eventually end up legally deaf.
  • There are 1400 loudspeakers in Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, mostly because baseball requires a big audio assist to keep it exciting.
  • Listening is the one sense that never rests. Indeed, we are even listening to our mothers in the womb, starting in the third trimester at about 30 weeks.

Paperback, 335 Pages
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