Sitting quietly beside my daughter on an old stump in a canyon where we’d gone rambling recently, I listened with joy to the warble of a bird and the babble of the water nearby.
One of my great pleasures is the fact that those sounds -- and the ticking of a watch -- are unimpaired by a pretty devastating hearing loss. If you’re going to be left with remnants, those are lovely.
Then my teenager spoke, the words mostly unintelligible, and I was reminded of precisely how much I have given up with decades of casual disregard for my ears. The fact that my hearing loss is most likely self-inflicted just increases the misery.
If you have kids, pay attention and talk to them about this early and often. Because hearing aids are a lovely tool and I am very grateful for mine. But this is one do-over I’d embrace in a heartbeat, were it possible. Artificial hearing cannot compare with the real thing. If you’ve got it, take care of it.
When I was in high school, I went to a ton of football games to root for good old Idaho Falls High. Screaming, it seems, was not optional. Hearing protection should not have been, either.
A few years later, as a young reporter, I reviewed concerts. And for at least a decade, it never occurred to me that I could hear the concert pretty much unimpaired even if I wore ear plugs, which would have been a dandy notion. The most I’d have lost is some of the shrill shrieks and whistles that are so many audiences’ contribution to a musical occasion.
I remember the concert where it finally hit me that my hearing was not coming back. I walked out of the venue with my ears feeling “clogged” from the screeches of the teenage couple behind me, yelling inches from my ear. Between that and the hyped volume of the music itself, my left ear had finally given up. It didn’t clear up the next day or the next year or ever. Hearing in my right ear eroded over time.
Concerts are among the most obvious, but not the most common ways we ravage our ability to hear.
A few years ago, a colleague and I did a breakdown of the decibels of daily life. We enlisted help and equipment from an occupational and environmental health center and measured the noise in common venues.
The sound of the crowd when a football team scored a touchdown was equivalent to an F-16 flying close overhead. Fireworks was like a gunshot. Both a leaf blower and 15 minutes at a rock concert can reduce hearing forever, though the effect may not be clear immediately, since loss layers on loss for quite some time.
That’s why some question if hearing loss really is part of the aging process at all, or if old people become deaf because they’ve just chipped away at it, a little at a time, for decades. If that’s true, it’s all self-inflicted to a degree. Which means self can take steps to prevent it.
We found that 85 decibels is the threshold beyond which over-lengthy exposure damage can build -- akin we were told to a crowded restaurant. The things we measured that exceed that include key moments in movies, some motorboats, a hunting rifle, legal fireworks, gas-powered lawn mowers, leaf blowers, power tools, garbage disposals, vacuums and more.
The part that’s tricky is twofold: Decibels increase exponentially, so 10 decibels higher is much, much louder. And sounds that can damage hearing over time don’t always seem that loud when you’re caught up in the moment, cheering for your team or trying to learn to water ski.
But you can trust me on this: The silence that can result feels very, very loud. And sorrowful.
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