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Hearing Loss and Tinnitus

Protecting Your Hearing

Hearing loss was formerly assumed to be a normal part of aging, but we now realize there are measures one can take to prevent it. Because noise-induced hearing loss is a preventable form of acquired hearing loss, using physical ear protection can help preserve hearing. Historically, some of the most advanced forms of hearing protection were used by construction workers and individuals exposed to high levels of occupational noise. Studies have found that school-based communication sessions and video education about hearing protection can increase the use of hearing-preserving devices among workers; individually-tailored interventions appear to be more effective than general interventions (El Dib 2009). People working in other occupations that may expose them to harmful noise levels (e.g., employees at nightclubs) may also benefit from wearing hearing protection devices. However, studies have found that only a minority of these workers actually use adequate hearing protection (Gunderson 1997).

There are two main types of hearing protection: passive devices (e.g., earmuffs and earplugs) that mechanically block sound, and active devices that electronically cancel sound waves at the ear (Lusk 1997). From a practical standpoint, earplugs may be a better fit for reducing noise exposure throughout the day, both in terms of cost and ease of use (Bessette 2011; Schulz 2011).

The Importance of "Social Earplugs"

Physical ear protection has long been considered the “last line of defense” after noise reduction and regulation (Voix 2009; Seixas 2011). Until recently, however, most studies focused on noise in the workplace, where the threats are predictable and the solutions largely controllable. Evidence suggests that everyday noise (e.g., busy streets or entertainment venues) poses equally great hazards. Nightclubs, for example, often produce peak sound levels as high as 107 decibels (dB), while the maximum safe industrial sound level is considered to be 85 dB, and for regular environmental exposure is 70 dB (Katbamna 2008; Neitzel 2012; Lusk 1997; Gunderson 1997; Williams 2010). Urban dwellers may be exposed to chronic sound levels above 74 dB during their daily activities, and above 79 dB on public transit (Neitzel 2012; Katbamna 2008).

The best hearing protection available to most of us is the simple earplug, which produces passive noise reduction by blocking or dampening excessive sound energy before it lands on the eardrum. Experts believe that comfort should be the number one consideration, even above technical reduction of noise level. The argument, essentially, is that the “perfect” earplug that does not get worn is of little use compared to a comfortable one that will be worn regularly (Lusk 1997).

Another important feature of your hearing protection should be that it allows normal, natural communication. Too much sound reduction can reduce the ability to perceive speech naturally, or hear and respond to sounds that warn of hazards (Van Wijngaarden 2001). Excellent hearing protection is now available in the form of “social ear plugs” that allow reduction of ambient noise levels while remaining attentive to the speech of those nearby.

When it comes to how much sound will be blocked, not all earplugs are the same. Like sun tan lotion with different SPFs, there are different protection factors for earplugs. This is known as the Noise Reduction Rating (NRR). The NRR is a rating system set up by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to represent how much noise earplugs will block when worn properly. An important factor in determining a product’s NRR is its attenuation. The opposite of amplification, attenuation is any reduction in signal strength. Attenuation for hearing protection devices is determined by a panel of human subjects over a range of frequencies. The average attenuation is then used in calculating the NRR. The higher the NRR, the more noise the earplug will block out.

Choose hearing protection based on its comfort, “social graces,” and of course, cost. Comfortable, effective, musician-grade earplugs can be found at a reasonable cost from reputable manufacturers.