World Hearing Day Is Here

In early March, healthcare providers and others interested in the long-term hearing health of people will be recognizing World Hearing Day. Set for March 3, the theme will be “To hear for life, listen with care.”

We’ll be part of this worldwide event at our 446 East Water Street location in
Elmira, New York.

Due to several factors, there are concerning trends regarding hearing that are increasingly hard to miss. One of the most striking is the rising number of younger people with significant hearing loss. Hearing aids only being for old folks is no longer a truism.

The factors thought to be contributing to this trend include rising rates of diabetes and other cardiovascular issues. But another big culprit is the increased volume at which many people now live, including the regular use of earbuds and the rise of noisy social environments such as gyms, loud bars and restaurants, and movie theaters with overpowering sound systems.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is sponsoring the event. The goal is to emphasize how important it is to try to prevent damage from accumulating by developing safe listening behaviors. This includes both individuals protecting their own hearing and regulatory solutions to curtail dangerous environments.

The theme of listening with care is rooted in one of the seven interventions (Noise Reduction) called for in the 2021 World Report on Hearing. The other six are screening and intervention, disease prevention and management, access to technology, rehabilitation services, improved communication, and greater community engagement.

Founded in 1948, the WHO is the United Nations’ primary agency dealing with global health issues.

Computer Can Do That?

The computing power that has revolutionized the capabilities of hearing aids continues to march forward.

Following the contours of Moore’s Law—which predicted in 1965 that microchips would radically increase in power, decrease in size, and drop in price—the tech of hearing aids is still advancing.

Recently recognized by the CES Innovation Awards, the Signia Augmented Xperience (AX) platform is just one example.

Using not one, but two tiny computer processors, Signia hearing aids are able to shape the sound environment of users and significantly enhance their hearing experience.

The tech—dubbed Augmented Focus—uses one processor to incorporate the “focus” sound (usually a human conversation) for the user while the second handles all the “surrounding” sound (the background soundscape). Built on what would have been pure sci-fi in 1965, the AX platform features augmented speech understanding, an immersive soundscape, and automatic situation detection.

This is all possible because the sound heard by the hearing aid user has been re-mixed at a ridiculous speed by the onboard computers.

The system was named an honoree in the Accessibility category by the Consumer Technology Association because it helps someone with hearing loss converse in public settings that would otherwise be very challenging. One of its models using the system, the Signia Insio Charge&Go AX, won in the Wearables category.

“At Signia our mission is to enhance human performance through iconic innovations and being named an Innovation Awards Honouree clearly shows us that we are on the right path,” said Signia’s Global CMO Maarten Barmentlo upon winning the honor.

Prepping Hearing Aids For Winter

Winter always calls for some preparation and care. Draining the gas out of the lawnmower. Making sure the windshield wiper fluid is topped up in the car. Digging the snow shovels out of storage.

Your hearing aids require the same kind of care and attention. Your ears too, for that matter.

‘Tis the season for ear infections, so staying healthy and keeping your ears warm and dry is the best defense. Follow mom’s advice and wear the hat.

But if you’re a hearing aid user, especially an in-the-ear model, keeping your outer ear warm is a bit of a double-edged sword. Ears well protected from the elements will, unfortunately, produce perspiration in the ear canal—even behind the ear lobes—which can degrade the performance of hearing aids.

The most effective countermeasure is doing a good job cleaning and drying your hearing aids regularly after an extended time outdoors, especially if strenuous activity was involved. Using a dehumidifier overnight to thoroughly get rid of any lingering moisture is an extra precaution that should be considered.

Another way to protect hearing aids, especially if you’re a winter athlete, is using spandex covers to better shield them against the weather. These will defend against both sweat and external moisture.

Finally, one winter risk to hearing that many don’t realize is running a snowblower. Those things are loud—cranking out over 100 decibels—and standing behind one without any protection like earplugs or earmuffs is not a great idea.

Take care of your ears and hearing aids this winter.

Your Hearing and Your Job

When undergoing cancer treatment, the principal issue is beating the cancer. Dealing with side effects is just part of that reality.

And in many instances, there are hearing-related challenges to face. Hearing loss, tinnitus, and problems maintaining balance are all common cancer treatment side effects. In some cases they can even be permanent, lingering after the cancer has gone into remission.

The usual tools of cancer treatment— radiation, surgery, and chemotherapy—all can impact hearing health.

Any kind of radiation treatment that needs to be targeted in the head or neck area can adversely affect hearing. Treatment can cause a range of issues, such as a narrowing of the ear canal, thickening of the eardrum, or collection of fluid in the middle ear. In some cases, permanent sensorineural hearing loss can occur when the inner ear or cranial nerve responsible for hearing are damaged.

Surgery to areas around the ear, such as the removal of a tumor, can cause damage to the ear’s apparatus. Such surgeries often require tradeoffs to be made.

Ototoxicity is the development of hearing or balance problems from medication, including cancer treatments. The drug cisplatin, for example, is a chemotherapy medication commonly used to treat head and neck, testicular, ovarian, cervical, breast, and several other cancers and it is known to cause nearly half of patients to suffer hearing-related issues. Damage to the sensory hair cells, which do not regrow, is the mechanism that most commonly leads to hearing loss. Again, tradeoffs have to be made.

A number of other cancer treatment drugs are known to negatively impact hearing as well.

If cancer treatment is on the horizon for your family, don’t be surprised if hearing loss intervention will have to be part of the process as well.

Your Hearing and Your Job

There are many things to consider when choosing a career. Maybe your long-term hearing health is one to add to the list.

There’s no way around the fact that jobs in factories and construction sites, or fields like agriculture, aviation, mining, or the military come with a higher risk of hearing loss. Heavy machinery creates a constant, high-decibel rumble that can damage the ears.

And if the career phase of your life is over and you worked that kind of job, then you should be especially attuned to any hearing loss that may manifest itself.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that “occupational hearing loss is one of the most common work-related illnesses in the United States.” Over 22 million workers in the United States are exposed to dangerous levels of noise at their worksite.

The damage done is cumulative and does not become clear until later in life.

The classic “macho” jobsites are not the only places where this kind of work-related harm can happen. Bartenders and waitstaff in nightclubs or loud restaurants are at risk, as are workers in live entertainment—including musicians. If the workplace is loud, the risk is there.

Another employment risk is from ototoxic chemicals (OHL), a wide range of solvents, asphyxiants, nitriles, pharmaceuticals, and metals and compounds that have been shown to make ears more susceptible to damage.

Known as Occupational Hearing Loss (OHL), it’s estimated that 24 percent of the hearing issues Americans suffer—which comprises 12 percent of the overall population—is work-related. And the longer someone works in a hazardous environment the more likely hearing loss will happen.

It’s clear that always using hearing protection is the best course of action when working in the kinds of jobs that can damage hearing. And if it’s too late to take preventive measures, then make regular hearing checkups part of your medical routine.

When Your Kid Really Isn’t Ignoring You

It’s easy to assume that hearing loss is specific to the Social Security years; it is more likely in older people. Everyone is on the lookout for it.

But less often—and therefore easier to overlook—is hearing loss developing in children. Adults can easily assume that obvious symptoms of hearing loss have to do with something else.

Children have short attention spans, especially regarding things not of their choosing. Not being heard is something every parent experiences. But sometimes it’s not that simple.

Here are some cues that there may be more going on:

  • A child who turns their head to one side when listening.
  • One who refers to either ear being the “good” one.
  • The recognition that a child needs to see you to understand you (this may be a sign they are using visual cues to compensate for hearing loss).
  • Almost all kids talk loudly, but doing so when not in an excited state—in an environment where it doesn’t seem natural—is not unusual in people with hearing issues, since people naturally compensate for not hearing by becoming louder when talking (think of how everyone ends up yelling in a crowded restaurant or bar).
  • Again, most kids turn the volume up on their music. But if it seems excessive—especially with the TV or for other non-musical content—then take note.
  • Finally, an abrupt drop in performance at school can be a sign of hearing loss. Sometimes teachers will notice that a student seems withdrawn or less active in class but not realize hearing loss is the root problem.

A child developing hearing loss after infancy does not happen that often, but it does happen. And there are ways to help once the issue has been diagnosed.

Why’s Everyone Mumbling?

Are you suddenly having trouble understanding what other people are saying? Not completely confident it’s entirely on them?

A few things could be going on.

In the “you gotta be kidding me” section there’s the possibility that you’ve just got too much of a good thing going on in your ear. As in earwax, which actually is important as a lubricant and defense against infection for your ears. But too much of it can get in the way of hearing. Don’t go digging it out—this can makes things worse and even cause damage—but rather tilt your head and put 5 to 10 drops of hydrogen peroxide in your ear. Hold there for a couple of minutes and let it start dissolving things.

If your earwax hasn’t been doing its job, then you could be suffering from a mild ear infection. The body will respond to this with inflammation, which can result in the eardrum being impacted.

The bacterial infection known far and wide as swimmer’s ear—brought on by too much moisture in the ear—can lead to the same result, in part because the diameter of the ear canal is reduced due to swelling.

Those are the most common, and least worrisome, causes of sudden “muddy” hearing.

Not surprisingly, a ruptured eardrum can also have a rather drastic and sudden impact on your hearing. Sometimes a bad infection can damage an eardrum this profoundly, but usually you’ll know when it happened—exposure to a loud noise or blow to the head.

Finally, occasionally a tumor—usually benign and known as an acoustic neuroma—can develop that slowly narrows the ear canal until, one day, you notice something’s not quite right. These can be treated with surgery or radiation.

All of the above are issues that usually crop up in only one ear. If there are persistent issues in both ears—especially without any sign of infection—then an immediate visit to a hearing health professional is called for.

Exercise Is Even Good For Your Ears

There are many reasons to make an exercise routine a priority. Most everyone knows this. But aiding your hearing is probably a reason you’re not aware of.

There’s research to support this, including a long-term study conducted by Miami University in the early 2000s that spanned a decade. It found that people over the age of 50 who worked out for at least 20 minutes five times a week were more likely to maintain hearing analogous to people still in their 30s.

A more recent study carried out by John Hopkins University found similar results, with positive outcomes for seniors who exercised as little as three hours a week.

The gist of the findings is that better cardiovascular health means higher functioning ears. Crucial parts of the inner ear—especially the cochlear hair cells that are the transition point between sound waves and the electrical signals sent to the brain that are what we actually “hear”—depend on vigorous blood circulation.

A sedentary lifestyle inevitably leads to poorer cardiovascular performance. And unlike body hair, if cochlear hairs atrophy and die they are not replaced with new ones. This is one of the primary drivers of presbycusis—the fancy word for people becoming hard of hearing as they get older.

Also at risk from reduced circulatory function are spiral ganglions, which are the nerve cells that act as the “wiring” that carry electrical impulses from the cochlear to the brain. They too depend on a healthy body to stay in peak shape.

The gist is that exercise—walking, swimming, biking, weight training, or even just gardening and housework—will lessen inflammation throughout the body and increase the oxygen content of the bloodstream. And both these things will help your hearing.

Take Care This Summer

Now that COVID-19 restrictions have been eased and we’re making up for lost time, it’s time to remember that some summer activities come with a risk of damaging your hearing.

Loud, sudden noise is one of the easiest ways to damage your ears. Fireworks are a well-known source of temporary—and sometimes permanent—hearing damage. They can create sound at the 175-decibel level; damage to ears can be caused by anything over 120 decibels.

The farther away you are from an explosion, the better for your ears. And if you are responsible for a young child, be aware that a noise level that adults can handle may not be true for a youngster, since their ear canals are so much smaller (which will amplify the effects of a high-decibel incident).

The same dynamic holds true for car races, the firing of guns, power tools, and all the other loud things that are part of summer.

Getting in the water is a big part of summer too. The primary risk here is coming down with a case of swimmer’s ear—which is just a seasonal name for an ear infection—due to bacteria finding their way into tiny scrapes and scratches in the lining of your ear canal.

What’s a common way to cause such abrasions? Sticking things in your ear—fingers, swabs, towels—when trying to dry them out after swimming or sweating due to exercising.

So, try to just let your ears dry out on their own—tilting your head from side to side will help—or use drops or a hair dryer (on a low setting).

It’s good to be back out, but don’t forget to take care of your hearing.

The Threat of Hearing Loss

Did you know that hearing loss can lead to poorer brain function?

Along with more seasonable weather, and maybe the promise a few beach days, the month of June is Alzheimer’s & Brain Awareness Month. Since 1980, people have been going purple to raise awareness for Alzheimer’s support and to accelerate research.  The Alzheimer’s Association even points out that June 20th, the summer solstice and normally the longest day of the year, is our chance to “fight the darkness of Alzheimer’s.”

And if you, or anyone you know has been ignoring their hearing issues, then this is a good time to visit a hearing professional. This is because it has become clear that untreated hearing loss can lead to cognitive brain performance issues, including Alzheimer’s.

Studies published in The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, The American Journal of Epidemiology, Archives of Neurology, and other peer-reviewed journals have all shown links between poor hearing and brain issues. And still others have shown that treating hearing loss effectively, especially with hearing aids, can lessen or eliminate the consequences.

Poor hearing can lead to social isolation, which heightens loneliness, which can lead to depression and dementia. More directly, the lack of activity in the part of the brain that interacts with the ears via the auditory nerve can atrophy due to lack of activity. This appears to be a process that is not necessarily localized.

“Brain scans show us that hearing loss may contribute to a faster rate of atrophy in the brain,” according to Frank Lin, M.D., Ph.D., a research director at Johns Hopkins. In fact, even mild hearing loss, when left untreated, doubled dementia risk, moderate loss tripled the risk, and those with severe hearing impairments were five times more likely to develop dementia.

There’s no reason to put off a hearing exam.