Sounds Of Silence
Although my hearing loss often makes me feel alone, the rapidly growing number of hard-of-hearing Americans suggests that’s not really the case.
By all appearances, I’m a healthy 40-year-old man. I don’t smoke. I weigh almost exactly what I did in college. And I’ve never had a major health scare. Mine is an invisible disability; there’s no obvious sign, but the clues are there if you pay attention. I say “What?” a lot. Also: “I’m sorry?” “Come again?” and “I didn’t catch that.” In noisy settings, I sometimes retreat from the conversation because I can’t follow it. I can seem a bit slow or, alternately, aloof, when what’s really happening is that I’m furiously searching for situational context to fill in what I didn’t hear. And if a friend asks me a question while standing directly behind me, I may not respond.
That’s what hearing loss looks like. Many people equate hearing loss with being deaf, but the two are very different. People who are deaf hear no sound at all, communicate via American Sign Language, and may be part of the capital-D Deaf culture, which holds that deafness isn’t so much a disability as a different variety of the human experience.
But most of us with hearing loss aren’t deaf, upper- or lowercase. We can hear; we just can’t hear very well. You might even be one of us and not realize it. Hearing threshold defines the softest sound a person can hear. A normal-hearing person can detect sounds down to about 10 decibels, like the soft, steady whoosh of someone breathing in a quiet room. Everyday conversation starts around 55 db. A baby in full-throated cry registers at 115 db. Mild hearing loss begins when a person can no longer detect sounds quieter than 25 db.
The leading cause of permanent hearing loss is noise exposure. Both extraordinarily loud intermittent sounds and prolonged exposure to consistent noise above 85 db can damage the delicate hair cells in the cochlea (inner ear), causing what’s called sensorineural hearing loss. Unfortunately, the unavoidable din of modern life is a primary culprit. A 1995 Denver Department of Environmental Health survey of noise in Denver found ambient sound levels creeping up to 70 db; in major urban areas, the constant clamor can top 80 db. Even common household items emit dangerous levels of racket: A gas lawn mower growls at about 100 db to the person pushing it; Hasbro’s Marvel The Avengers Iron Man Mission Mask cranks out 101 db, according to the Sight and Hearing Association’s 2012 survey of noisy toys. And most MP3 players have a maximum volume of 100 db with the stock earbuds, according to a 2006 report researched, in part, by a University of Colorado graduate student.
Because noise-related hearing damage is cumulative, older people have higher rates of hearing loss (a third of those between 65 and 74 are affected, according to National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders statistics), which makes it easy to categorize the affliction as an age-related disorder only. In reality, a third of hearing loss cases in men and one-fifth in women begin between 20 and 39. But a 2010 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that our country’s hearing problems may be beginning even earlier. According to that report, which cited noise as a potentially significant cause, nearly 20 percent of Americans ages 12 to 19 have mild to moderate hearing loss.
Current National Institutes of Health statistics estimate that about 17 percent of Americans (or about 36 million people) over the age of 18 have reported some degree of hearing loss, but self-reported rates among adults are thought to be low. A 2011 study by a group of doctors at Johns Hopkins University puts the estimate at closer to 50 million, or about one in five Americans. There are no state-specific numbers, but if those trends and statistics are accurate, nearly one million Coloradans, much like me, may be finding themselves unable to join the conversation.