Preventive Maintenance for Summer Ears

Summertime brings its own rituals, pastimes, and challenges. As far as your hearing health goes, there are a few things to be particularly aware of during the hottest days of the year.

The most common one has to do with water.

Diving into swimming pools or natural bodies of water increases the likelihood of fungal or bacterial infections. Usually getting lumped under the term “swimmer’s ear,” what is commonly happening is some kind of irritation of the skin in your ear canal. Even if you don’t spend time in the water, perspiration from hot conditions can cause the same issues.

The key is to get your ears dried out without increasing the likelihood of infection. This is especially true if you use hearing aids, since putting them back in will trap moisture in the ear canal.

The first rule is to not be tempted to use a cotton swab to rub them dry. This can make things worse, since the swabs can scratch the skin in the ear and actually increase the likelihood of infection. The best things to do include letting gravity do some of the work by tilting your to either side (pulling on your earlobe at the same time helps too, since it flattens the ear canal), using a blow dryer on low heat, or drying drops that do the job via a chemical reaction.

Other summer issues to keep in mind include protecting ears from extreme sound environments (fireworks, concerts, vehicle races), fluid buildup in your ears due to allergies, and discomfort from the effects of flying (if a summer vacation is in the mix).

Take it easy on your ears this summer.

Alcohol and Hearing Function

The negative effects of drinking too much are pretty well advertised. Less obvious is that drinking too much over both the short-term and long-term can also cause hearing issues.

Believe it or not, too much alcohol in the bloodstream can cause stress on the tiny hairs inside the ears that send electronic signals to the brain. One of the reasons hearing loss is common in many older people is because these hairs stop regenerating. And alcohol can cause the same kind of damage.

On the other hand, this one is not so hard to believe — alcohol affects the brain. This includes the auditory cortex, where the sound transmitted from the ears is processed. Long-term drinking can shrink the auditory cortex.

Temporary or permanent tinnitus — an incessant ringing in the ears — can also result from alcohol consumption. This is due to the increased blood flow that drinking causes, which throws the inner ear mechanism awry. And since that blood is full of alcohol, the fluid within the ear that is an important part of its functioning is infused with alcohol. This has a number of repercussions, including altering one’s sense of balance — which is why the room starts to spin and “falling down drunk” is a thing.

And there’s a term for getting oblivious about how loud an environment is. It’s called “cocktail deafness.” Getting drunk at a concert or in a loud bar can result in basically forgetting to process how loud it really is. This leads to one of the worst things for hearing health — prolonged exposure to high-decibel sound that can do permanent damage.

Hearing health, another reason to be mindful of your alcohol consumption.

Better Hearing & Speech Month: Natural Ways to Promote Hearing Health

May is Better Hearing and Speech Month, which provides a great opportunity to raise awareness about communication disorders and hearing health. Promoted annually by the American-Language-Hearing-Association, this year’s theme is “Communication Across the Lifespan.” What better way to spread awareness than understanding natural ways to promote hearing health?

Although natural remedies and diet-based strategies to improve or maintain hearing cannot replace professional treatment when facing pronounced hearing loss, there are things worth doing to maintain hearing health.

Certain minerals, herbs, and habits are known to be beneficial. Likewise, some things are to be avoided (and not just the obvious things like loud noise and not using ear protection).

For example, a number of medications are known to have adverse side effects on the hearing of some individuals; they are known as ototoxic drugs. Tinnitus is the most common side effect, though more serious complications are possible. There are lists of ototoxic drugs that can be referenced and, when needed, alternatives should be explored.

Heavy consumption of alcohol is also known to cause hearing issues — including possible long-term damage to the tiny hairs inside the ear that are crucial to hearing.

On a more positive note, brain games are a way to maintain or improve the ability to better understand sounds. Voices especially not only have to be heard, but ultimately processed efficiently. Websites like Lumosity and organizations like AARP have resources for exercising brain function.

Then there are certain herbs that humans have consumed for countless generations that are believed to have a positive impact on hearing health.

Blood circulation is vital to the operation of the ears and Ginkgo biloba is known to have a positive impact. Ginger is a strong antibiotic that will inhibit ear infections. Likewise, echinacea enhances the immune system and has anti-inflammatory properties that can help ears get through bouts of sickness.

Many hearing issues demand medical attention, but maintaining general overall hearing health can be pursued outside of the medical office.

A Not Subtle Hearing Issue

Though rare, sudden hearing loss (SHL) is not unknown. And though the medical community does not fully understand the phenomena, any abrupt cessation of hearing in an ear is cause to seek urgent medical attention.

SHL can be temporary or permanent. Only time will tell. It can also affect one or both ears. Early intervention is key.

The cause of SHL is not clearly understood but there are a number of factors believed to be at play, either singly or in combination. These include the delayed effects of ear infections or spinal injuries; issues stemming from chronic blood circulation problems like obesity, blood clots, arteriosclerosis, and diabetes; and bouts of stress that curtail blood flow.

The “sudden” part of SHL is meaningful. Oftentimes hearing loss is clearly related to disease — meningitis, mumps, or chickenpox for example — or exposure to high-decibel sound that directly damages the inner ear. SHL happens suddenly, with no clear cause or even an earache of any kind.

A bout of tinnitus — an unremitting ringing sound that is heard but not produced by anything in the hearer’s environment — does sometimes happen as part of a SHL event. Fluctuating pressure in the ear and numbness also are accompanying symptoms.

As a first step, medical care providers will deliver treatment that produces better blood circulation to the head, since this sometimes clears up the problem. If this isn’t successful, then further testing will be required. An ear microscopy and/or MRI can find evidence of the underlying issue that has caused the SHL.

The key is to seek immediate medical care. SHL is a medical crisis and can be a sign of other underlying medical issues. Don’t wait for it to “clear up” on its own.

 

High-Tech Awards for Hearing Aids

Showing just how high-tech the hearing aid industry has become, Phonak was recently the recipient of two awards for innovation in New York at CES, which is the tech tradeshow sponsored by the Consumer Technology Association.

One of their two CES 2019 Innovation Awards was for the accessibility features of the Audéo Marvel. The other was for the 3D-printing technology that was part of the manufacturing process of the Virto B-Titanium.

The CES brings over 4,000 exhibitors — consumer-tech developers and manufacturers — and is attended by over 182,000 people from 160 countries. The Innovation Awards highlight innovative products that span 28 categories that are judged on design, functionality, consumer appeal, and engineering.

The rechargeable Phonak Audéo Marvel was recognized for its universal Bluetooth accessibility — including Bluetooth Classic — and its support of direct stereo streaming from Android smartphones and iPhones. The Marvel is also programmed to automatically recognize and make adjustments between streamed speech — newscasts, e-books, podcasts, etc. — and music streaming.

Cutting-edge 3D printing technology is used in the production of the Phonak Virto B-Titanium. Phonak claims it is “the world’s first 3D-printed titanium hearing aid.” This is not the only recognition this top-of-the-line hearing aid has received. It was also the recipient of a Red Dot Design Award for product design and a Gold Stevie (a business award) for Best New Product or Service of the Year in the Health and Pharmaceutical Industry.

“Our entire team is honored to have Phonak’s industry-leading hearing aids recognized for excellence in both Accessibility and 3D Printing,” proclaimed Phonak’s Senior Vice President of Marketing Thomas Lang. “These award-winning hearing solutions continue to illustrate Phonak’s boundless commitment to helping people live a life with no limitations.”

Things To Do For Healthier Hearing

Hearing loss can be an inevitability for some people. Only so much can be done about accidental exposure to extremely loud noise or a genetic predisposition for hearing loss. But for most people, hearing loss is not a sure thing and there are a number of activities that can actually help maintain hearing health.

The most obvious is exercise. The biological fact is that the inner ear and brain are very dependent on the healthy flow of oxygen-rich blood. The neurotransmitters in the brain that process sound can atrophy over time when blood flow is degraded. Likewise, the inner ear — especially the crucial cochlea — is a finely tuned part of the body that requires a base level of overall cardiovascular health. In long-term studies spanning decades, as little as two hours of exercise a week has been found to lower the risk of hearing loss.

This can include obvious exercising like walking, jogging, and swimming — but activities like yoga and meditation have also been found to have positive outcomes on hearing health. Yoga not only improves blood circulation, but research has shown that people suffering from tinnitus have used yoga as an effective means of reducing its severity. Stress is also a known risk factor for hearing loss, so meditation practices that lessen anxiety levels can help with some hearing issues.

Even just mindfully exercising your hearing in everyday situations can help. When standing in line or basically in any “just waiting” situation, concentrate on the particulars of the soundscape you’re stuck in. Focus on a specific sound, then move onto another distinct sound — rinse and repeat. This kind of listening calisthenics actually exercises the parts of your brain that process sound and can heighten the ability to follow conversations in noisy locations later on.

Some Myths About Hearing

There are any number of myths — widely held assumptions — about hearing issues. Here are a few of them.

Hearing Loss Is For the Oldsters

Actually, over 60 percent of the approximately 50 million people in the United States with hearing loss issues are under the age of 65. It’s obviously not an issue that you’ll only find at an AARP convention.

Currently, a number of factors seem to be making hearing loss an issue earlier in life. These include the widespread use of personal audio devices and the earbuds/headphones that come with them, the rising regularity of loud sound systems in public places, and the generally high volume of modern life (and increasing rarity of relative silence). It has been reported that in the 12- to 19-year-old age bracket, 1 in 5 already show signs of some kind of hearing loss issue.

Hearing Loss Is an Isolated Problem

Hearing is its own subdivision of overall health, right? Not really. There are now numerous studies linking hearing loss — especially when left untreated — with a series of negative outcomes, especially regarding mental health. Hearing loss can lead to social isolation and depression, which are directly linked to cognitive decline and dementia (which may also be linked to degraded brain activity due to the loss of sound inputs).

On the prevention of hearing loss side of the equation, there is also ample evidence that better overall cardiovascular health usually leads to healthier hearing. The inner ear is very dependent on good blood circulation and a degrading of overall physical health can lead to hearing issues.

Hearing Loss Is Inevitable

Not really. Like so much about one’s health, genetics plays a huge part. In some cases, hearing loss will happen. But in many cases, preventive strategies may make hearing loss far less likely. As mentioned above, good cardiovascular health will help (so, smoking is a clear risk factor for hearing loss). But the most obvious way to prevent hearing loss is to avoid exposure to high-decibel noise and, if you know you will be exposed, then to use ear protection. Loud noise damages the ear and avoiding it can mean avoiding hearing loss issues.

You Really Want To Ignore Your Hearing Problem?

Ignoring the reality of hearing loss is not a good long-term strategy. Studies have found any number of bad outcomes stem from an unwillingness to treat hearing-related issues. These include not only health effects, but also emotional and economic repercussions.

One of the most troubling findings is that hearing loss correlates with higher incidences of Alzheimer’s and dementia. There are several working theories as to why this is the case.

One theory is that there is a long-term strain on the brain when having to interpret words that are not inputted clearly, causing it to have to overcompensate. Another possibility is that when much of the sound spectrum is no longer heard the brain is deprived of needed stimulation.

Studies have also found that general health is lower in people with untreated hearing loss, compared to those who have had their hearing issues treated.

In addition, it has been found that adults with hearing issues who use hearing aids report higher levels of happiness than those who refuse them. A whole host of issues — sadness, anxiety, insecurity, even paranoia — occur at higher rates in people not dealing directly with hearing loss. Social isolation is also unhealthy in and of itself.

And a study sponsored by the Better Hearing Institute showed that hearing loss could negatively impact household income by up to as much as $12,000 annually. The findings suggest that hard-of-hearing employees are apt to make more errors at work and thus miss out on promotion opportunities — or even end up losing their jobs.

Considering that treatment for hearing issues will ultimately cost only pennies per day, refusing to deal with hearing loss is not a good long-term financial strategy. That’s even before considering the health and emotional satisfaction aspects of such stubbornness.

Hearing Loss and Hospital Readmission Rates

A recently released study for The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society by New York University researchers shows that, for individuals over the age of 65, hearing loss is an increased risk factor for hospital readmission.

These rates are a hotbed of current research, since Medicare will not pay for patient readmissions for certain conditions that occur within 30 days. Healthcare providers are working hard to curtail such situations.

The key issue with regards to hearing loss revolves around the ability of patients to communicate with healthcare workers. It was found that people who reported problems communicating with medical personnel  — after teasing out other factors — were 32 percent more likely to be readmitted within 30 days.

Since hospitals tend to be noisy, fast-paced environments, it’s not surprising that the hearing issues of patients might be a problem.

“Attending to hearing loss is a strategy that hospitals really have not tried, and if they tried it they might be able to reduce the risk of readmission for significant portion of their patients,” said NYU’s Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service researcher Jan Blustein to Reuters.

“Hospitals are noisy chaotic places, and people with hearing loss may have trouble understanding key information, such as what medicines they should take after discharge, or how they should watch for or manage exacerbation of their symptoms,” he added. “This puts them at risk for difficulties after they are discharged from hospital.”

Obviously, having had hearing loss issues treated prior to hospitalization would be of great benefit. There are also methods and technology that hospitals can put in place that could lessen the problem.

Anyone who’s been hospitalized, or their caregivers, should be aware of these issues.

Think About Your Hearing This Month

October is not only the month of Halloween. It’s also National Audiology Awareness Month.

As the seasons shift, it’s a good time to consider your hearing — and maybe schedule an exam. Hearing loss is sometimes sudden and dramatic, but more often than not it is gradual and adapted to without conscious thought. Hearing loss may have already happened and you haven’t “noticed” it yet, though once tested it will become apparent that some of the sound spectra has been “turned off.”

Approximately 40 million people in the United States have some degree of hearing impairment. And the loudness of modern life — leaf blowers, traffic, high-volume music (especially listened to via earbuds), and any number of other activities that include exposure to high-decibel noise — will mean that number is sure to continue growing.

The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders has found that the average amount of time between the first onset of hearing loss and when someone actually seeks treatment is 7 to 10 years. That’s a long time to hear less than is possible and is also a long stretch of time in which further complications — such as mental health issues and cognitive impairment — can take root.

The first Audiology Awareness Month was in 2008. The event is sponsored by the American Academy of Audiology.

For older people, hearing loss is the third most common health issue after heart disease and diabetes. But only 20 percent of people with hearing loss seek treatment. And with more and more evidence that untreated hearing loss is associated with the onset of dementia and other cognitive issues, it should be part of every older American’s basic health screening.

October is a great month to get started on taking care of your hearing health.