MADISON, Wis. — Think about hearing protection like sunblock – don’t go out for your noisy summer activities without it.
This advice is backed up by one of the largest multi-generational studies of hearing loss of 5,275 adults born between 1902 and 1962. The widely reported UW School of Medicine and Public Health study showed that baby boomers are aging with much better hearing than their parents had at the same age. And there’s a reason for that, says Ted Tweed, senior audiologist with the Epidemiology of Hearing Loss Study.
“The older people in the study worked in noisy workplaces before the federal rules that mandated hearing protection went into place,’’ Tweed says, “These days, when I’m on campus and see university employees mowing the lawn, they’re wearing hearing protection.”
Tweed says the younger generation in the study had the benefit of the federal Occupational Health and Safety law that mandates hearing protection if workers are exposed to noise higher than 90 decibels during an eight-hour shift. And while the average homeowner doesn’t have a decibel meter, Tweed offers this rule of thumb: “If it has a gasoline engine, it can damage your hearing and you should wear hearing protection.”
For example, lawnmowers and shop tools create noise at about the 90-decibel range, while snowmobiles and chainsaws create about 100 decibels and the loudest jet skis have been measured at 115 decibels.
Sounds louder than 80 decibels can cause hearing loss by damaging the hair cells in the inner ear. These are the cells that signal the auditory nerve to send electrical impulses to the brain, which the brain interprets as sound.
It is not just the loudness, but the duration of the loudness, that matters, Tweed says.
“You can have short-term exposure to loud noise without problems,” he says. “Everything comes down to time and intensity.” For example, a 90-decibel sound can cause damage after eight hours, while an exposure to a 100-decibel sound can be tolerated for only two hours.
Tweed wears custom-fitted ear plugs when he mows his own lawn. They’re comfortable and he says any audiologist can make them. You can also buy generic ear plugs at most drug or sporting goods stores. The ear-muff style headphones also offer good protection, but may not be comfortable for hot weather.
And it isn’t only work that threatens your hearing. With the summer concert season in full swing, concertgoers should realize that a loud rock show can come close to 150 decibels for those in front of loud speakers.
“Concerts can be a problem if you sit too close to those large speakers for a long enough time,” Tweed says. “If you experience ringing and fullness in the ears after the concert, the music was too loud and you could be at risk of hearing damage.”
This kind of damage is insidious, Tweed says, and you won’t notice it until after it has occurred.
For concertgoers, Tweed suggests taking a tip from professional musicians who wear a type of ear plug available at music stores that protects hearing while preserving the quality of the music.
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