Our Embattled Ears: Hearing Loss Once Seemed a Normal Part of Aging, but Experts Now Agree That Much of It Is Preventable. How to Protect Yourself

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Hearing loss once seemed a normal part of aging, but experts now agree that much of it is preventable. How to protect yourself.

CATHY PECK, A MUSICIAN, NEVER thought much about her ears. Sure, she relied on them every day as a bass player and singer/songwriter in an all-girl punk But it took five years of thunderous rehearsals and concerts before Peck realized that her ears had been damaged-permanently-by noise. Frank Goral, a Marine Corps naval flight officer, didn't think much about his ears, either--despite exposing them to the screaming roar of jet engines five days a week for a decade and a half. But the day Colonel Goral left the skies for quieter office work, he discovered that his ears weren't up to the job. "I found I was bumping guys on the left and the right and asking them, 'What did that gentleman just say?' "he says.

Conventional wisdom would have us believe that hearing loss is as inevitable as gray hair and age spots. But research has shown that excessive noise exposure is one of the leading causes of ear damage. "About 75 percent of hearing loss in the typical American is caused not by the aging process alone," says William Clark, a senior scientist at the Central Institute for the Deaf in St. Louis, "but by what you've done to your ears throughout your lifetime." While few of us will ever endure the long-term beatings of a punker or a pilot, we are all in danger of permanently injuring our hearing without even realizing it. More than 20 million of us are exposed on a regular basis to noxious noise levels--and the effects are beginning to show. "We're seeing evidence of an increase in hearing loss at younger ages," says Laurie Ham, director of audiology at the League for the Hard of Hearing in New York City. "We believe it's due to an increase in noise in the environment."

Noise damages our ears in two ways. It can strike in an instant, causing what is known as acoustic trauma. One blast from a high-powered hunter's rifle can rip apart the ear's inner tissues, leaving scars that permanently dampen hearing. It can also develop insidiously over a period of decades in what is called noise-induced hearing loss, or NIHL. Dangerous noise levels attack the inner ear's 16,000 hair cells, the tiny workhorses that transport airborne vibrations to our brain, where they're decoded as speech or screech orspare us all--the wail of a car alarm. Those hair cells do spectacular work, but they're incapable of regeneration. By the time we get the signal that something is wrong--a ringing in the ears, a muffling of sounds-- some of the ceils may have died. "Your ear doesn't bleed after a rock concert or a shot of fireworks," says Clark. "That's why noise is a bigger hazard than it seems."

Consider the decibel (dB) count a temperature reading for the ear, with 85 dB marking the fever point for safe, unlimited exposure. Washing machines and vacuum cleaners (both less than 85 dB) aren't likely to cause harm--even if you listen to them every waking hour. But as dB levels rise to 85 and beyond, our ears enter a danger zone that worsens with length of exposure. Your ear can safely handle two hours with a power drill (100 dB), but not more than 30 minutes in a noisy video arcade (110 dB). Every 10-decibel increase on the sound scale represents 10 times more ear-battering noise. It will come as no great shock to parents that a screaming child (90 dB) rings in louder than a typical alarm clock (80 dB). And few commuters will be surprised to learn that a subway platform (at 100 dB) is considerably noisier than a busy city sidewalk (80 dB).

City folk have long complained about noise; New Yorkers ranked it the No. 1 problem at the turn of the century and still do today. But even the suburbs are no longer quiet escapes from aural mayhem. They've become open-air stages for the 1990s din of leafblowers and "boom cars," those rock concerts on wheels. …