The world has become an increasingly noisy place. High noise levels can permanently damage hearing, and they can interfere with your ability to communicate.
What are your favorite summertime activities? From enjoying fireworks and auto racing, to riding ATVs and motorcycles, chances are you’ll be exposed to noise that can potentially damage your hearing. And this doesn’t even include the harmful noises produced by lawn mowers, leaf blowers, chainsaws, and other power equipment you may use in your yard.
High noise levels, such as those found in busy stores and other public venues, also interfere with your ability to communicate with family and friends, possibly causing you to avoid social situations.
A clear awareness of noise, both how it can cause hearing loss and how it detracts from human interaction and quality of life, can contribute to good hearing health.
Threat #1: Damaging noise—it’s everywhere
Exposure to noise is one of the leading causes of hearing loss in America, affecting people of all ages, from children to older adults, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD).
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 12.5% of children and adolescents age 6 to 19 years and 17% of adults age 20 to 69 years have suffered permanent damage to their hearing due to excessive exposure to noise.
How much noise is too much depends not just on noise decibel levels, but on length of exposure. For example, the noise emitted by a lawn mower (85 to 95 decibels), can gradually damage your hearing over a period of weeks or months. On the other hand, a sudden “impulse” sound, such as a gunshot or fireworks in close proximity to an unprotected ear, can cause instantaneous hearing loss.
The chart below shows a few everyday examples of approximate decibel (dB) levels.
Because actual decibels for each noise source can vary significantly, it’s best to take measurements using a decibel meter or dB meter smartphone app (read a review of apps here). For Apple Watch wearers, an app called Noise will monitor surrounding noise levels and issue a warning when dB levels exceed a certain threshold.
Threat #2: Noise as a barrier to communication
Noise doesn’t just damage hearing; it can interfere with your ability to communicate in a variety of settings or situations, including busy stores and other areas with lots of background noise.
People with hearing loss typically experience the greatest difficulty hearing conversations in the presence of background noise. Consequently, many of these individuals simply stay away from high-noise places, potentially leading to social isolation—which is a known risk factor for dementia and depression.
Avoiding noisy places seems like an easy solution to this issue. But the sound levels of various places are not widely publicized, making it a challenge to find quieter settings that are conducive to conversations.
Technology may be able to help here, too. An app called SoundPrint provides a platform where you can use your mobile iOS device to measure and report noise levels in public places. Since the app was launched in 2018, thousands of venues nationwide have been measured and reported.
From awareness to action
Clearly, noise poses a threat, and not just to your hearing, but to your overall health and quality of life. The good news is, you can take action to reduce the impact of noise on your hearing and your life.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends the use of hearing protection at noise exposure levels of 85 dB or higher. Whether you choose inexpensive foam earplugs, earmuffs, or custom-made devices, you can protect your hearing in a way that fits your budget and lifestyle. Has your hearing already been affected by noise? Maybe you suspect hearing loss but aren’t sure. As a first step, you should get your hearing tested by a qualified hearing care professional.
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