Veterans' biggest health concern involves hearing damage

Hearing Health Foundation, the leading non-profit funder of hearing research, remains committed to the Americans serving in the U.S. armed forces who return home suffering from tinnitus (ringing in the ear) and hearing loss. At least 60 percent of soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan report hearing problems due to noise exposure experienced during their time of service; surprisingly, hearing loss and tinnitus are more common than post-traumatic stress disorder.

Hearing loss and tinnitus aren’t new to the military, found San Diego writer and editor Elizabeth Stump, whose research contributed to the content of this article. John Ayers, 79, of Texas was informed at the age of 25 that he had suffered from hearing loss due to his time in the U.S. Air Force preparing B-47 jet bombers to fly combat missions.

“Earplugs were required only for those who worked on the flight line and next to the aircraft,” he says. “Flying at 10,000 feet, the engine roar permeated every part of my body. The droning of the engines made the entire airplane frame vibrate, making it difficult to sleep; hearing other people talk was impossible. It was several days before my hearing returned to normal.”

“Hearing loss is truly a hidden disability, and our aim is to address significant gaps in the military’s ability to prevent or mitigate, and then treat this type of injury,” says Col. Mark Packer, the interim acting executive director of the Department of Defense’s Hearing Center of Excellence and an Air Force neurotologist.

For a variety of reasons, hearing protection for the military remains limited. Hearing Health Foundation strongly advocates using hearing protection in all situations with high noise levels, but while earplugs can protect against noises that reach 80 to 85 decibels, they can’t protect fully against explosions and firefights that reach intensely dangerous levels of up to 180 decibels.  Some active duty servicemen and women also worry that using earplugs will prevent them from hearing important tactical instructions.

Nathan Beltzee, 35, of New Jersey, served for 11 years in the Army and Air Force. He suffered hearing loss as a direct result of gunfire and loud jet engines.

“I have 40 percent hearing loss in my left ear and 30 percent in my right ear,” Beltzee says. “I left the service because of my hearing problems. I was afraid to ever fire a gun again or to be in a situation where I would be exposed to small arms fire or explosions that would make the ringing worse."

There is currently no cure for the noise-induced hearing loss experienced by armed forces, but through the Hearing Restoration Project, Hearing Health Foundation has a goal of a real, biological cure for hearing loss within the next decade.  The cure for hearing loss would help people like Ayers and Beltzee regain hearing lost as a result of their military service.

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