A Month For Men to Think of Their Health

In part to honor Father’s Day, June is Men’s Health Month. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, it is meant to “… raise awareness about health care for men and focus on encouraging boys, men, and their families to practice and implement healthy living decisions.”

And one area of health to consider this month is hearing health.

This may not come as a shock, but men are less likely to take steps to deal with hearing issues than women are. This even though men are, according to the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders, at double the probability for having such issues.

There are a number of risk factors that make men more likely to develop hearing loss:

  • Men suffer from diabetes at a somewhat higher rate than women; the condition makes hearing loss twice as likely.
  • Studies have tied regular use of common painkillers, known as analgesics (aspirin, acetaminophen, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) with a higher risk of hearing loss in men.
  • Long-term exposure to loud work environments (careers like construction, manufacturing, or the military) and recreational pastimes (hunting, sports, small motors like lawn mowers and leaf blowers) present significant risk for hearing loss.

Ultimately, degraded hearing is not the only thing men need to worry about. There is now a wealth of evidence showing that poor hearing — especially later in life — is a significant driver of mental health issues like depression and degraded overall cognitive performance.

So, make June a time to think about your hearing and how to protect it. Or make the man in your life do it.

A Change of Plans

Since 1927, May has been Better Hearing and Speech Month.

But there’s never been a year quite like this one.

Activities and programs meant to center, this year, on issues around “Communication at Work” have had to be shelved to deal with the elephant in the room that no one can ignore: COVID-19.

The organization that first established and still manages Better Hearing and Speech Month, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), has had to switch gears.

Representing 211,000 members and affiliates — from audiologists to speech-language pathologists to support personnel — ASHA decided to turn its attention to the immediate matters at hand. The focus is now on providing resources for managing current circumstances — and helping shape the nation’s response to COVID.

This has included helping craft changes to federal telehealth payment regulations to allow for more “distance” consulting by audiologists, which was part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. This month’s focus is also on helping hearing health professionals institute best practices in their facilities in order to restrict the spread of the virus.

In addition, ASHA has published a “COVID-19 and Hearing Loss in Adults: Strategies at Home” pamphlet to help individuals cope with issues during this time of restricted access to professional in-person support. Further guidelines will continue to be published throughout the month by ASHA.

Everyone in the hearing health profession is struggling to create new protocols on the fly. This includes students whose preparations for entering the field have been disrupted, researchers who have had to halt studies, and manufacturers whose product development work has been paused.

Eventually, in-person care will return. But rescheduling cancelled appointments and overdue hearing aid maintenance will have to wait for now.

Bluetooth-Enhanced Hearing Aids Are Becoming the Norm

Wireless has pretty much settled-in as a consumer buzzword. It basically means being able to connect computing devices without cluttering things up with a tangle of cords.

It is a capability that is increasingly being extended to hearing aids. Wireless capability is quickly becoming the norm.

And this is usually based on Bluetooth, the dominant wireless protocol.

What Bluetooth does is create a concentrated wireless network, one that doesn’t extend too far in any direction. That makes possible a wide range of inter-connectivity, from printers and laptops to smartphones and desktops.
And now hearing aids connecting with most of the above (though no one’s explored the possibility of a hearing aid talking to a printer).

What can also happen is, using an app, hearing aids can be fine-tuned and controlled without actually having to touch them. Given how small they are becoming, this brings an ease-of-use that wasn’t possible a couple of generations ago, when fumbling with dials and buttons was the norm. A wide range of adjustments can easily be made using a smartphone’s touchscreen.

A Bluetooth network can also mean you can stream audio from your smartphone or TV directly into your hearing aid. And by extension, Bluetooth allows hearing aids to become a part of the Internet of Things (IoT). This opens up a wide range of possibilities.

One of the most significant for hearing aid users is being able to upload data from a hearing aid to a hearing health professional, who can analyze it and make adjustments to your hearing aid that will increase its performance. Some models even allow this to happen in real-time.

Hearing aids aren’t what they were only 10 years ago.

Drinking Does Not Help Your Hearing

It’s widely known that excessive drinking — especially chronic alcohol consumption — can lead to any number of health issues. And one of them is definitely degrading hearing, both over the short- and long-term.

Something to maybe think about on St. Patrick’s Day.

The first part of this is a no-brainer. There’s actually a specific part of your brain — the auditory cortex — that is dedicated to transforming the electrical impulses it receives from the ear into what you recognize as “hearing.” And needless to say, too much alcohol throws off brain function. Enough alcohol in the bloodstream and it seeps into that corner of your brain.

A more long-lasting concern is alcohol-drenched blood that can damage the tiny auditory hair in the cochlea, which is where the electronic signals sent to the auditory cortex originate. These hairs do not regenerate, so when damage occurs it’s permanent (which is why aging is often accompanied by hearing loss). This part of the inner ear is very dependent on healthy blood flow — and alcohol does not help.

As with too much alcohol in the brain throwing things off in the short-term, the same can happen in the inner ear. Alcohol is a vasodilator, meaning it relaxes blood vessels and increases blood flow (and decreases blood pressure). All of this can throw off the balance of the inner ear. This can cause tinnitus, which is an incessant ringing. And, since your balance is controlled by the inner ear, it can literally throw off your balance. They don’t call it falling down drunk for nothing.

One other St. Patrick’s Day tip. Watch out for cocktail deafness. This is when alcohol consumption makes a loud environment not seem all that loud — or at least worthy of concern. For hours and hours. And waking up with damaged ears can be one result.

For the Sake of the Ears, Remember That It’s Cold Outside

Now that we’re deep into winter, it’s time to remember to protect our ears from what the season can throw at us — the cold, the wet, the flu. And hearing aids need some special love too.
Since it’s the season to get sick, ear infections can be a regular aspect of winter. This will bring fluid buildup, which can actually cause temporary hearing loss. The best defense is to not get sick, so eat well, stay dry, push the vitamin C, and keep those ears dry—letting them get cold and wet in the weather will definitely make an ear infection more likely.

If you already use a hearing aid, then that bit about staying warm and dry will serve them well too. If you expect to spend time in the elements, then spandex hearing aid covers are available that will significantly cut down on their exposure to moisture.

But cold rain or swirling snow are not the only culprits. There is also the perspiration that will likely build up in your ear from being bundled up. Making sure your hearing aids get good and dry with regularity — consider an overnight dehumidifier — will protect your investment and ensure better operation.

And one way you might get sweaty is dealing with all that snow. If you have a snow blower, then remember that it can produce over 100 decibels when blasting away. Without hearing protection, that can damage your ears. So make sure you use some earplugs or noise-reducing headphones when running one.

There are any number of winter-related realities to prepare for. Protecting your ears and hearing aids is just one more.

When Your Child Needs a Hearing Aid

It’s not anything any parent wants to hear, but realizing that your child has a permanent hearing issue and will need a hearing aid is a challenge — but not a tragedy. With the technological leaps that have been made by hearing aid manufacturers in recent decades and the wealth of experience within the audiology field, you and your child will have significant support moving forward.
The most common time to find out a child has hearing issues is at the age when they are learning to talk, though infant hearing exams can often reveal a problem earlier. It’s rare that a teenager will suddenly develop significant hearing issues — though certainly not impossible.

But what this usually means is that “growing up” for your child will incorporate transitioning from one hearing aid to the next. Having one will become second nature for them.
Generally speaking, younger children will be outfitted with simpler models that are sturdy and easier to use. Depending on the significance of hearing issues and other considerations, the first types of hearing aid your child will have will be either a RIC (receiver-in-canal) or BTE (behind-the-ear) model that will have to be incorporated into your family’s life.

A RIC captures sound waves from inside the ear canal (while the computer-end of things are behind the earlobe), while a BTE has the receiver outside the ear canal with everything else. BTE’s are often more practical, since ear-molds that can be re-crafted as the child grows, making the whole apparatus more comfortable.

In the teenage years, there’s often a transition to ITE (in-the-ear) models since these are not only more discreet but also inline with modern wireless technology, allowing kids the opportunity to connect to all their devices — and even some wireless infrastructure that many schools have incorporated.

Flying Tips For Your Ears

Leaving on a jet plane can be stressful. Not just emotionally — the old John Denver song captured that — but physically too. And your ears are on the frontline.

Ears can actually be damaged by changes in air pressure that flying entails. This is known as barotrauma, which is usually a result of the eardrum being drawn inward. In extreme cases, the eardrum can break or tear. Thankfully, it’s usually only ear “popping” that is experienced when fluid relocates suddenly to equalize pressure within the ear.

In addition, it is sometimes overlooked in the excitement of flying that airliners are loud — even from the inside.

That’s obvious enough from the outside when a plane is taking off or landing, but the fact is that noise can hit 105 decibels — enough to cause problems — inside a plane’s cabin at takeoff. Even when cruising at altitude the noise level will be in the 85 decibels range. These are above the norm of everyday life.

So, being an airline passenger means being in a high noise environment. Therefore, precautions are called for.

Along with gum to deal with the ear-popping, bring some earplugs as well. There are even flying-specific models. They incorporate pressure equalization capabilities, making the ascent and descent less jarring for your inner ear while protecting you from the high-decibel noise.

If you’re bringing a device — smartphone, tablet, laptop — with you, then adding a set of noise-canceling headphones will allow you to drown out the external noise while streaming in the music, podcasts, or dialogue that you actually want to hear.

Even before you get to the airport, there are things you can do. Booking your ticket in advance has benefits, including a better chance to pick your seat. The front of the plane is farther from the engines, so seats near the nose are quieter. Same with aisle seats as opposed to window seats. It might be a matter of only a few decibels, but it’s something.

How to Survive Black Friday With Hearing Loss

For some, Black Friday is a day of excitement. For others, it’s an enigmatic event to be avoided at all costs.

If you’re one of the former and have hearing issues — or maybe even if you don’t — there are some steps you want to take before venturing out into the stampede of Christmas shoppers. If carrying out your purchasing duties the day after Thanksgiving makes absolutely no sense — or instead you stay home and shop online — then you’ve got nothing to worry about.

Otherwise, it’s a jungle out there — and it’s best to be prepared.

Step one is planning ahead. Asking for information on the “day of” is not going to be easy — whether you have hearing issues or not. Store clerks will be at their wit’s end. It’ll be loud. If you have a game plan you can follow with a minimum of needing to talk to others, then all the better.

If you do need to talk to a store clerk, make sure you let them know you’re hearing impaired. This will hopefully alert them to the need to slow down and be as clear as possible.

Finding some partners to charge the ramparts with is also a good strategy, especially if noisy environments are a particular challenge. Likewise, remember that ears actually respond well to taking a break from loudness. Just going outside or sitting in the car periodically during the day will not only calm the nerves but also give the ear canal some rest.

Finally, neither ears nor hearing aids are big fans of the cold. So, it’s best to skip the “camping out for bargains” experience altogether. If Black Friday will involve extended time in the cold, then remember to keep your ears as warm as possible.

The Genetics of Auditory Disorders

Several factors can cause auditory disorders. The foundational trigger is genetics. Over 50 percent of newborns that present hearing issues have genetic issues that are the source of the problem. Hearing loss is an inheritance trait known as a genotype.

Genes are the instructions cells follow as they grow and develop. Mutations can develop in genes and passed on from generation to generation, which is known as a familial trait. Mutations can also develop anew. For example, exposure to radiation can cause them.

  • When both parents have a genetic predisposition for hearing loss it is passed onto a child and, if it manifests itself, is known as autosomal recessive hearing loss. This occurs even though both parents have normal hearing — the condition was just dormant in the parents.
  • With autosomal dominant hearing loss, a predisposition from one parent or a new mutation of a gene leads to hearing loss.
  • Males are far more common to be affected by X-linked hearing loss, in which a gene mutation in the X chromosome — of which males have one and females two — manifests itself.
  • Syndromes of the mitochondria, which are vital parts of cells that produce energy, can be passed on genetically and create issues in the functioning of the ear.

The fact is that the inner ear is a very complex example of evolved design. The cochlea, which converts sound waves into electrical signals and sends them through the nervous system to the brain, is a mechanism that requires a vast number of genetic instructions to develop properly.

Only a handful of genetic “wrong turns” can lead to hearing issues. That only about 1 percent of babies are born with genetic hearing loss is actually a profound testament to the majesty of biology.

The Link Between Diabetes and Your Hearing

The inner ear, where sound is converted to electricity (and sent to the brain via the auditory nerve network), is very dependent on healthy circulation. Though very small when compared to other vital organs, it is an energy-intensive part of the body and requires a constant inflow of nutrients.

This is why diabetes, unfortunately, is very much a risk factor for hearing loss. Current research posits that diabetics are two times more likely to have hearing issues than non-diabetics.

Since diabetes inhibits the bloodstream’s ability to transport glucose, a sugar vital to transferring energy to cells, it can prevent the ear from functioning normally. There is also evidence that the elevated levels of blood glucose — diabetes causes glucose to buildup in the blood rather than be transferred to cells throughout the body — damages the blood vessels that are vital to the inner ear.

One fundamental role these blood vessels play is in nourishing the stereocilia, the tiny hair cells that are a crucial part of the inner ear. These hairs cannot regrow or regenerate after being damaged. And a lack of healthy blood flow will damage them.

Diabetes, if untreated, can wreak havoc with much of the body’s functions. It can cause blindness, organ failure, and lead to amputation of extremities.

A 2012 study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism concluded, after evaluating 13 other studies based on over 20,000 subjects, that the higher risk for hearing loss in diabetics was clear and cut across age and other risk factors.

The general advice to diabetics — exercise regularly and keep weight under control — will also lessen the chances of hearing loss. In addition, protecting ears from other risk factors, such as excessive noise, is even more important for a diabetic.