Awareness

Suffering After Sacrifice

By Lauren McGrath

Every Veterans Day, Hearing Health Foundation (HHF) celebrates the brave individuals who have served and sacrificed to defend our country. We are grateful to our active military members and veterans for their courageous protection of American values and freedoms.

As we honor those who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces, we acknowledge a tragic and troubling health problem. An astounding number of veterans—60% of those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan—live with tinnitus and noise-induced hearing loss. In 2017, the Veterans Administration reported 1.79 million disability compensation recipients for tinnitus and 1.16 million compensation recipients for hearing loss, the number one and two disabilities, respectively. In an HHF video about hearing loss treatment, Retired Army Colonel John Dilliard, Chair-Elect of HHF’s Board of Directors, explains, “The noise from repeated gunfire and high-frequency, high-performance aircraft engines takes its toll on the human hearing mechanisms.” Col. Dillard lives with both tinnitus and hearing loss following 26 years of service.

John Dillard and fellow soldiers, Fort Irwin National Training Center, 1977.

John Dillard and fellow soldiers, Fort Irwin National Training Center, 1977.

Dr. Bruce Douglas, 93, remembers the moment his hearing became severely compromised while serving in the Navy during the Korean War. “On what was my 26th birthday, after pulling the trigger on the M1 rifle with no protection (none of us had any) multiple times, I was left with tendonitis in both knees—and worse, permanent, chronic tinnitus due to acoustic trauma. My hearing went downhill ever after, and every imaginable kind of sound and sensation has resulted from my tinnitus,” Douglas writes in the Fall 2018 issue of Hearing Health.

Hearing protection training must start as soon as one enters the military. But there is a misconception that hearing protection inhibits vital communication and mission readiness because hearing signs of danger is imperative to survival. “Soldiers want to be able to hear the snap of the twig and want to be able to be situationally. As a result, they are often resistant to wearing hearing protection,” Col. Dillard says.

Fortunately, sophisticated hearing protection technology does exist so that military personnel do not have to choose between protecting their ears or their lives. Examples include noise-attenuating helmets, which use ear cups to protect against hazardous sound, and Tactical Communication and Protective Systems, which protect against loud noises while amplifying soft ones.

The U.S. military continues to work toward safer hearing in the service. The U.S. Army has developed the Tactical Communication and Protective System (TCAPS), which are earbuds that dampen dangerous noises to safe levels using microphones and noise-canceling technology, while also providing amplification of softer sounds and two-way communication systems. An initiative by the U.S. Air Force called Total Exposure Health (TEH), meanwhile, focuses on overall health both on and off the job, will measure cumulative noise exposure over the course of 24 hours. These developments and others, which HHF applauds, are covered in greater detail in Hearing Heath’s Fall 2017 issue.

As greater preventative technology for our military becomes available, HHF remains dedicated to finding better treatments and cures for tinnitus and hearing loss to benefit the lives of millions of Americans, including veterans, a disproportionately affected group. We hope you will join us in remembering their sacrifices with gratitude and compassion.

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Sudden Hearing Loss Is a Medical Emergency

By Donna Rohwer

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Mondays are always bad, right? I awoke deaf in my left ear—completely deaf. I asked my husband if he thought it was anything to worry about and he said, “Not yet.” I thought the same and appreciated the confirmation. We didn’t know then that sudden hearing loss is a medical emergency.

Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss (SSHL)

Damage to the inner ear, the cochlea, or related nerve pathways cause SSHL. A loss of 30 decibels or more in three consecutive frequencies in one or both ears within several days is considered SSHL. Immediate treatment can make partial or total recovery more likely. Unfortunately, many medical professionals— from emergency room to waiting room—don’t recognize SSHL or know how to treat it. As a result, many patients lose the opportunity for recovery because they don’t get the right treatment within the critical time. In my case, I received treatment within a week—it wasn’t optimal, but better than many. I had no significant recovery.  

SSHL Is LOUD, Isolating, and Devastating

The shocking thing to SSHL patients is how LOUD everything becomes. Sounds distort and blend together, sound direction is lost, and every sound seems magnified. The tinnitus is sudden and loud, with whooshing, popping, and other sounds. The tinnitus often worsens with activity or background noise, and goes long into the night. Some people don’t feel well, see well, sleep well, or balance well. SSHL strains relationships and many people simply stop participating in activities. I felt as if I had lost my life.  

SSHL Can Be Life-Threatening

I consoled myself at first that my condition wasn’t life-threatening. Within weeks, however, I no longer wanted to go on living. I later learned that many people respond this way. Physicians recognize the psychological impact when someone loses a limb. Losing the sense of hearing, suddenly, is not dissimilar. I didn’t know how to live with SSHL, or where to turn for support. I felt abandoned until I received the mental health support I urgently needed.

Alone at the Table

I have slowly reclaimed my life through the support of family, friends, and several Facebook groups. I also have used a cognitive therapy course for tinnitus, antidepressants (briefly), and months of working through the process. But there are still moments. My passion is recreational poker. I recently played with a mixed group, some with typical hearing, some with hearing loss. The hearing people were talking, but the background noise kept me from understanding them, and I don’t know ASL. I felt alone at the table—caught somewhere between the hearing world and the deaf world.

What Do We, as SSHL Patients, Want?

We want non-ENT medical professionals to learn about SSHL and treat it as a medical emergency. We want ENT doctors to recognize the psychological aspects of SSHL and refer us to appropriate resources. We want hearing loss advocates to see that SSHL has unique challenges different from other kinds of hearing loss. Lastly, we want a cure.

You can empower work toward better treatments and cures for hearing loss and tinnitus. If you are able, please make a contribution today.

 
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Eight Pairs of Earplugs in Four Noisy Settings: My Hearing Protection Experiment

By Kayleen Ring

Before my 2018 summer internship at Hearing Health Foundation (HHF) in New York City, I underestimated the importance of protecting my ears, often leaving myself at risk for damage from noise at concerts, sporting events, and other loud places. I took my typical hearing for granted until learning that hearing loss is largely caused by noise exposure and can negatively impact the brain function of young adults, even in its mildest forms. But I was also encouraged to discover noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is preventable. Earplugs in particular are a convenient, low-cost tool for hearing preservation.

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To improve my own hearing health and to create awareness about NIHL, I experimented with different types of earplugs in various loud settings. Expecting no more than a handful of foam options, I was excited to learn what an assortment of earplugs is available—each with different shapes, sizes, and features. Previously, my earplug experience had been limited to basic foam pairs to drown out my college roommates’ snoring!

I evaluated each personal earplug use experience with a 1 to 10 rating—10 being highest—for effectiveness, comfort, and ease of use. The Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) metric indicates how much noise is blocked out by the pair of earplugs.

Setting: Concerts

Just one loud concert (decibel levels up to 120 dB) can cause permanent damage to your ears. I tested earplugs at two musical events.

1. Eargasm High Fidelity Ear Plugs

  • NRR: 16 dB

  • Effectiveness: 10

  • Comfort: 10

  • Ease of Use: 10

At first, I worried wearing earplugs at a performance by one of my favorite artists would negatively affect my concert experience, but this pair allowed me to hear and enjoy the music perfectly at a reduced volume. They were so comfortable I forgot they were in my ears! They were easy to remove using the pull tab and I  also liked the carrying case they come in, because it fits in my small bag and keeps the earplugs hygienic for reuse.

2. Moldex Pocket Pak Squeeze

  • NRR: 27 dB

  • Effectiveness: 8

  • Comfort: 9

  • Ease of Use: 9

The triple-flange design, neck cord, and carrying case provided a secure earplug experience at an even louder concert where sound levels spiked to 120 dB. Unprotected exposure to noise at this level, which is equivalent to that of ambulance sirens or thunderclaps, can damage hearing in seconds. Fortunately, the ridged edges on the earplugs I used made inserting them far easier and faster than foam earplugs that need to be shaped prior to use.

Setting: Group Fitness

At a popular group fitness class, I recorded sound decibel levels and the results showed extremely loud and dangerous levels of noise. The average was 91 dB and the max was 119 dB over the one-hour class period. For a healthier workout, I wore earplugs.

3. Mack’s Blackout Foam Earplugs

  • NRR: 32 dB

  • Effectiveness: 9

  • Comfort: 10

  • Ease of Use: 9

These were excellent because I was able to hear the music and the trainers’ instructions, just at a lower volume. Less distracted by the loud music than usual, I was able to focus more carefully on my workout and form. They fit snugly and stayed in place over the course of the 60-minute, high-intensity session.

4. EarPeace “HD” High Fidelity Earplugs

  • NRR: 19 dB

  • Effectiveness: 10

  • Comfort: 10

  • Ease of Use: 8

I was particularly impressed that this pair included three set of filters offering different levels of protection. I used the highest decibel filter, 19 dB, and found the class music was still clear and enjoyable. My only challenge was properly inserting the very small filters.

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Setting: Restaurants

When I didn’t intern at HHF this summer, I worked at a restaurant on Long Island, New York, that was always busy, sometimes bursting with chatty customers waiting three hours for service. Beyond the crowds, the restaurant had live musical performances that amplified an already loud environment. This is dangerous for workers and patrons alike. Here, the earplugs I wore still allowed me to hear clearly and hold a conversation.

5. Etymotic ER20XS High-Fidelity Earplugs (NRR: 13 dB)

  • NRR: 13 dB

  • Effectiveness: 8

  • Comfort: 8

  • Ease of Use: 9

The Etymotic earplugs had the positive qualities of the typical high-fidelity earplugs and included three interchangeable eartips, a hygenic carrying case, and a neck cord, providing a secure and effective earplug experience.

6. EarPeace “S”High Fidelity Earplugs

  • NRR: 19 dB

  • Overall Effectiveness: 10

  • Comfort: 10

  • Ease of Use: 10

This pair was great. They reduced the noise perfectly so it was at a comfortable yet still audible volume. The dual-flange design and soft silicone material made the earplugs fit well, were comfortable and easy to use.

Setting: New York City Subway

Decibel levels on the subway platforms trains are extremely high and can cause hearing damage, especially for frequent riders and employees. For my tests, I sat inside the 34th St-Penn Station 1/2/3 subway station across the street from the HHF office, where I was greeted by screeching trains, talkative tourists, and a steel drums player.

7. Moldex Sparkplugs

  • NRR: 33 dB

  • Overall Effectiveness: 9

  • Comfort: 10

  • Ease of Use: 9

The Sparkplugs blocked out noise while allowing me to hear conversations and train announcements. They were easy to mold into my ears, allowing for optimal noise reduction. The pattern on the earplugs is colorful and fun, making them appealing for children, and easily locatable in your bag.

8. Alpine Plug & Go

  • NRR: 30 dB

  • Overall Effectiveness: 8

  • Comfort: 8

  • Ease of Use: 8

These foam earplugs reduced volume but the noise was muffled. Consequently, these would be a great option for more sedentary activities, like sleeping and flying, where you are aiming to block out all noise. The foam was comfortable and fit snugly in my ears, but was challenging to mold.

The reviews and ratings here are based on my individual experiences and are not intended to encourage or discourage anyone’s use of specific earplugs. High ratings are not product endorsements. As someone newly informed about the dangers of noise, it is my hope my summer intern experiment for HHF will raise awareness and inspire others to investigate hearing protection that best meets their needs.

Kayleen Ring is a former marketing and communications intern at HHF. She studies marketing in the honors program at Providence College in Rhode Island.

Receive updates on life-changing hearing research and resources by subscribing to HHF's free quarterly magazine and e-newsletter.

 
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The Happiest Baby—With Noise-Induced Hearing Loss

By Nadine Dehgan

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Nothing in my life compared to giving birth and being able to hold my heart in my arms. As most sleep-deprived new parents will attest, there also is nothing quite like the helplessness you feel when this tiny person whom you love more than anything won’t settle and continuously cries (after being fed, changed, swaddled, and is fever-free).

Before my oldest daughter was born I thought I was well-equipped to be a parent. I had always been around children, was the second oldest of six children, became an aunt at 19, had a strict  pediatrician, took my parenting class seriously—and read “The Happiest Baby on the Block,” a best-selling book by Harvey Karp, M.D., recommended to me by other new parents.

Nine years later, it has been brought to my attention Karp’s ardently recommended action of “shh-ing” my daughters is extremely damaging to an infant, or any human. He advises the “shh-ing” sound needed to activate a crying baby’s calming reflex is a rough, rumbly whoosh noise that is as loud as your infant’s crying. This is at least 115 decibels (dB), according to Oregon pediatric audiologists Heather Durham, Au.D., and Shelby Atwill, Au.D. Alarmingly, sounds over 80 dB for an extended period of time are damaging and anything greater than 100 dB for even a few minutes can cause permanent noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL).

NIHL is an epidemic for American children—one in five are estimated to have significant hearing loss before the age of 20. I wonder how many children suffer from NIHL as a result of well-intentioned parents who relied on this harmful advice.

I remember reading I could put my daughters at ease by putting my mouth close to their ears and making a strong “shhhhhhhh” noise. The sound of someone’s forceful “shhhh” directly in your ear can actually be painful. (Please do not try it!) Babies have super hearing—the best hearing humans will have in their lives is when they are first born. I shudder to think how loudly I was “shh-ing” my daughters to sleep. The louder they cried, the louder I “shh-ed,” thinking I needed to do more to soothe them as I had learned.

A new grandparent and supporter of Hearing Health Foundation (HHF) recently alerted me to this danger, and after testing the decibels of my so-called soothing “shhh” sounds, I immediately had a pit in my stomach because indeed the noise is loud—dangerously loud. I had “shhh-ed” my daughters for countless nights and naps. White noise machines (usually in a stuffed animal) placed right near a baby’s head can be equally dangerous.

Like sun exposure, loud noise exposure has a cumulative effect; it could be that “inevitable” age-related hearing loss is merely the result of a lifetime of living in our noisy environments with unprotected hearing. Parents with newborns who are difficult to calm down need another, less risky option for inducing sleep, one without lifelong consequences.  



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A Fast Track to Hearing Damage

By Andrew J. Guralnick

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Millions of commuters using the New York City subway system know it can be noisy, but just how loud is it? As a 2018 Hearing Health Foundation (HHF) intern, I set out to measure the danger that the NYC Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) subway system presents to riders and employees.

I found that the system significantly breaches the threshold of what is safe for our ears. To protect hearing, both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization recommend an average exposure limit of 70 decibels (dB) over the course of 24 hours. But what we measured exceeds that limit: Our samples show the average noise levels on all subway platforms and on all subway rides (inside subway trains) is between 72.5 and 76.5 dB and between 74.1 and 75.8 dB, respectively. And, with maximum readings actually as high as 119 dB on platforms and 120 dB on rides—based on actual recorded data within the sample—the NYC subway is likely an auditory minefield. (See hhf.org/subway for full data.)

Using our data’s sample averages, I determined ranges as to what the actual averages are on all subway platforms and rides through the MTA system. Based on the data, we are 99 confident about our results.

Collecting and Analyzing

From January to August 2018, three data collectors used Decibel Meter Pro, a smartphone app on iPhones and an iPad to collect 120 samples from platforms and rides. All 60 platform samples were equally represented at five minutes each. The 60 ride samples were assigned random recording lengths from 10 to 30 minutes. Samples on Saturday and Sunday or between 11 p.m. and 4:45 a.m. on any day were excluded. Random sampling was utilized as much as possible to help ensure generalizability on behalf of all platforms and rides.

The analysis examined potential harm to hearing from loud noises on subway platforms and loud noises during subway rides. For platform noise, the main variable is the number of trains that pass; for subway ride noise, the main variable is the number of local stations the train passes. We also investigated the number of seconds the subway noise level reached 75 dB or higher.

When measuring subway rides, we noted train travels between Manhattan and another borough or vice versa; whether a train runs above ground; whether the sample was collected during rush hour; and whether a local train ever becomes an express train, with fewer stops.

The statistical method of multiple regression was used to predict dangerous noise exposure on both platforms and rides. We can predict that each train that enters or leaves a platform will expose a rider’s ears to 16.53 seconds of noise at 75 dB or higher. For example, if a rider waits at a platform where two trains come and go before their train arrives, that would be a predicted exposure of 82.65 additional seconds of noise at 75 dB or higher.

We can also predict that each subway stop that is passed will expose a rider’s ears to 36.06 seconds of noise of 75 dB or higher. For example, if a rider passes 10 local train stops on their trip, the predicted exposure of noise at 75 dB or higher is 360.60 additional seconds—or 6.01 additional minutes.

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Cumulative Effect

HHF’s recommendation for commuters, MTA staff, and platform retailers such as newsstand operators is simple: Wear ear protection. MTA staff and platform retailers are at elevated risk given the hours they spend underground and on the trains. The tendency for many commuters to block noise by raising the volume of their headphones is not a helpful approach and could in fact damage hearing even more.

The subway is merely only one of many sources of daily noise. “Noise-induced hearing loss can result from a single, sudden noise event and from constant exposure to loud noises that has a cumulative effect (not unlike sun exposure) and can lead to related negative health effects when unknown and untreated,” says Lauren McGrath, HHF’s marketing manager.

The MTA appears aware of the issue of subway noise. The newly built Second Avenue subway line uses effective noise-reduction measures such as “low vibration tracks and sound absorbing panels.” We hope the MTA will continue to use these quieter, low vibration tracks when making subway and station upgrades, especially since they are more cost-effective than traditional wooden tracks.

2018 HHF intern Andrew J. Guralnick is pursuing a master’s in public administration at Baruch College in New York City.

Receive updates on life-changing hearing research and resources by subscribing to HHF's free quarterly magazine and e-newsletter.

 
 
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Visit Our New Website Focused on Ménière's Disease

By Lauren McGrath

Hearing Health Foundation (HHF) unveiled today a new microsite dedicated to Ménière's disease, a chronic vestibular (inner ear) condition with no known cure. The content is accessible at www.menieresdisease.org as an extension of the foundation’s primary website, www.hhf.org.

HHF’s www.menieresdisease.org seeks to build awareness of and bring clarity to the “mysterious” condition with simple, informative pages. The goals are to inspire hope among people who live with Ménière's disease and their loved ones, share updates about Ménière's disease from scientists funded by the foundation, and provide a channel through which individuals can donate to life-changing Ménière's disease research. HHF is fortunate to have all administrative expenses covered by its board of trustees and endowment, so 100% of gifts will directly support life-changing research programming.

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Ménière's disease affects approximately 600,000 people in the U.S. The most prominent symptoms include a sensation of ear fullness, dizziness, vertigo, nausea, fluctuating hearing loss, and tinnitus. Some patients benefit from treatments, but far too many remain completely debilitated, bedridden, and unable to work. Episodes of vertigo can strike at anytime without warning and this uncertainty offer triggers anxiety and depression.

Ménière's disease has long been an area of interest for the HHF’s long standing research programs. Inspired by supporters with personal interests in Ménière's disease and gravely concerned by the general lack of research on the subject, HHF declared a greater focus on the condition in 2017 through the establishment of the Ménière's Disease Grants (MDG) program. MDG is exclusively focused on the etiology, diagnosis, and treatment of Ménière's disease. MDG awards scientists up to $125,000 for a two-year grant period is governed by the Ménière's Disease Advisory Board, comprised of senior researchers and physicians throughout the country who review each application for scientific merit and program relevance.

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The face of the new website is Nicolle Cure, a celebrated visual artist diagnosed this year with Ménière's disease and whose life has been devastated by sudden hearing loss and crippling vertigo. Nicolle describes her reactions to the onset of her symptoms: “These ‘invisible conditions’ affect patients an emotional level. I was completely isolated from the world and was frustrated because I couldn’t do anything or go anywhere.” Nicolle is grateful to have art as a most powerful coping mechanism when she feels well. “I wish to use my art to help people be open about their conditions and find treatments and relief and know that they are not alone in this journey.”

HHF encourages our supporters to visit www.menieresdisease.org to learn more about Ménière's disease and to share with friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, or others who may benefit from the reminder that they are not alone and find inspiration in the groundbreaking research that will one day transform lives.




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A Reminder During Newborn Screening Awareness Month: Infant Hearing Tests Are Vital to Children’s Futures

By Nadine Dehgan

Hearing Health Foundation (HHF) joins the healthcare community and all parents in celebrating Newborn Screening Awareness Month.

Newborn screenings assess babies’ health within the first 24 to 48 hours of life. These quick and painless evaluations check for potentially harmful conditions that would otherwise not be apparent at birth. Included in this process are screenings for hearing loss, which is detected in three out of every 1,000 babies born in the U.S. 90 percent of babies identified with hearing loss have parents with typical hearing.

Hospitals use two safe and comfortable newborn hearing screening tests. Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) tests examine the nearly inaudible sounds, or emissions, produced by ear stimulation using a soft foam earphone and microphone. The inner ears of babies with typical hearing produce these emissions when stimulated by sound, while those with a hearing loss greater than 25-30 dB do not. Auditory brainstem response (ABR) tests measures how the hearing nerve responds to sounds. A hearing specialist plays sounds into the baby’s ears, while bandage-like electrodes are placed on the baby’s head to detect brain wave activity. Printed results show a pass or fail result.

A proactive approach to hearing health begins at birth. An early hearing loss diagnosis—before hospital departure—enables parents and families to pursue intervention, such as hearing devices, assistive devices, and/or sign language, as promptly as possible. Intervention of any kind permits children with hearing loss to enjoy healthier outcomes related to speech and language acquisition, academic achievement, and social and emotional development.

“When [profound bilateral] hearing loss was confirmed, I felt I had to do everything in my power,” recalls Dr. Nada Alsaigh, a pathologist, who made sure her son, Alex, was first amplified with hearing aids at three months. “We were lucky to know early, so Alex was not affected in a negative way.”

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“[My son] Ethan received his first set of hearing aids when he was eight weeks old,” explains Jason Frank, a corporate attorney and member of HHF’s Board of Directors. “It’s really been amazing to watch over the last seven years how far he’s come. He has a wonderful appetite for learning.”

Cognitive advancements for children like Ethan and Alex would not be possible without support for universal newborn hearing screening (UNHS) from HHF and likeminded organizations. In 1993, a staggeringly low rate of newborns—five percent—were tested for hearing loss in the hospital. This number increased to 94% by the end of the decade. Today, nearly all babies undergo this vital test.

“The institution of infant hearing screening at birth has been critical to speech and language development in the first two years of life [of a child with hearing loss],” says Anil K. Lalwani, M.D., Columbia University surgeon and member of HHF’s Board of Directors. “Before infant hearing screening was mandated, the average age of diagnosis for hair loss in a child with profound was two-and-a-half or three-years-old—later than recommended to begin intervention.”

In fact, a 2017 University of Colorado Boulder study of children with bilateral hearing loss further underscores the need for identification of hearing loss at a young age. Primary investigator Christine Yoshinaga-Itano, Ph.D., and team found that children who received intervention for hearing loss by six months had significantly higher vocabulary quotients than those who did not.

Though UNHS is highly-regarded by hearing experts like Drs. Lalwani and Yoshinaga-Itano, its security has been jeopardized. Last year, proposed cuts to the 2018 federal budget threatened to remove the $18 million allocated toward newborn hearing screenings in all 50 states. Given the lifetime costs of profound untreated hearing loss of nearly $1 million, a $18 million investment in screenings is surely worthwhile. Both the fiscal and health benefits of UNHS generated bipartisan support and, in 2017, the Early Hearing Detection and Intervention (EHDI) Act became law to sustain funding until 2022.

“We can’t imagine what it would have been like not to know,” Jason says. Ethan taught himself to read at three-and-a-half years old, which Jason and his wife believe is a direct result of Ethan’s access to sound and language at a very early age.

HHF implores policymakers to preserve newborn hearing screenings come 2022. The elimination of UNHS would be a tremendous disservice to our nation’s children with hearing loss. Learn more about how early intervention created positive health outcomes for Ethan and Alex in HHF’s short video (also shown above).

Receive updates on life-changing hearing research and resources by subscribing to HHF's free quarterly magazine and e-newsletter.

 
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Noise: Exposed

By Nadine Dehgan

Aboard my noisy flight to the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) Convention in June, I couldn’t help but reflect upon loud sounds—and what can be done to reduce our exposure.

I’d recently learned that the word “noise” is derived from “sea sickness” or “nausea” in Latin. Noise has literally been associated with poor health outcomes for thousands of years.

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Synonyms for “loud” include “ear-splitting” and “deafening.” In fact, vibrations from loud noises travel through the eardrum to reach our inner ear, where sensory hair cells change them into electrical signals to be interpreted by the brain. Hair cells, however,  come in limited supply. Humans are typically born with 16,000—and when these cells are damaged by noise, age, ototoxic drugs, or other factors, the brain’s ability to communicate with the ears is significantly weakened, resulting in permanent hearing loss.

Concerned about my fellow plane passengers’ hair cells, I opened my phone’s decibel (dB) measuring app, which indicated the maximum noise level after takeoff was 92 dB, while the average was 83 dB. The app also pointed out that this dB level is equivalent to that of alarm clocks. While this doesn’t seem uncomfortable, it’s actually not recommended for periods over two hours. I’d come prepared with both earplugs and noise-canceling headphones—which I limit to 60 percent of maximum volume in accordance with the World Health Organization (WHO)’s recommendation. But not everyone taking flights comes prepared for the dangerous levels of noise inside the plane.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) states noise greater than 75 dB can harm hearing, and in 1974, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommended that sound exposure should remain at or below 70 dB to prevent noise-induced hearing loss. Sudden loud noise—such as from blasts, gunfire, firecrackers, and bullhorns—also can cause hearing loss with levels reaching 165 dB! This is why so many veterans return with hearing loss and tinnitus. Tragically, they are the two most common disabilities for those who serve.

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And yet our society glorifies noise. Two confessions explain my frustration. The first is I love to listen to love songs from the ’90s and my children think these songs are current hits. My second is when my kids are not in my car I often listen to classical music, but once in awhile I listen to current hits. One station’s tagline actually is “Ear-Popping Music.” I couldn’t believe that damaging eardrums was being advertised as a good thing! My youngest daughter, Emmy, had many eardrum ruptures—from infections, not noise—and she truly suffered. My anguish as a parent watching my baby and then toddler in pain was nothing compared to the pain she endured with no understanding of why.

How can we be okay with hearing loss and ear damage advertised as a positive experience? No one would advertise skin cancer from excessive sun exposure as a perk of a beach vacation. Nor would a beverage manufacturer tout soda’s negative impact on dental health.   

It is my wish that one day we take the real risk of hearing loss seriously and recognize it for the epidemic that it is. Experts say approximately one in five American children will have permanent hearing loss (largely noise-induced) before reaching adulthood. University of Ohio scientists report that even mild hearing losses in children can cause cognitive damage that would typically not occur until at least age 50. This is horrifying.

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Still, we surround our children with damaging noise. Birthday parties, movie theaters, weddings, and family celebrations can blast noise exceeding 115 dB. Football stadiums, hockey arenas, exercise classes, and music concerts have clocked in at over 140 dB, which can cause irreversible hearing loss—whether sudden or progressive damage—in minutes.

Recently, a friend told me she complained of high noise levels (105 dB) to her daughter’s dance studio. Instead of offering to turn down the volume, management told her that she could leave the class. While her daughter can no longer attend dance class, my friend has the consolation of knowing her child is safer. My thoughts go to the employees of fitness centers, stadiums, restaurants, bars, and other commercial establishments whose ears are constantly assaulted.

Before becoming CEO of Hearing Health Foundation (HHF), I didn’t appreciate the dangers and consequences of loud sound. I now know that even a mild untreated hearing loss can lead to social issues including isolation, depression, and poor academic performance in children. In adults, the stakes are also high, with untreated hearing loss bringing the risks of mental decline, falls, and premature death.

Hearing loss can be mitigated by technology including hearing aids and cochlear implants. While these treatments are beneficial and life-saving, HHF is funding research toward permanent cures. Birds, fish, and reptiles are all able to restore their inner ear hair cells once damaged—but mammals including humans cannot. HHF funds a consortium of top hearing scientists through our Hearing Restoration Project (HRP) who study how other species are able to regenerate their hearing in order to apply this knowledge to humans through a biological cure.

As the plane descended toward Minneapolis, my ears popped, but I know the minor discomfort can’t compete with what Emmy experiences. As the mother, sister, daughter, and granddaughter of individuals with hearing loss, I remember my two biggest wishes: for society to place a greater value on hearing protection, and for HHF to continue to support researchers on their quest to treat and cure hearing loss and related conditions.

Receive updates on life-changing hearing research and resources by subscribing to HHF's free quarterly magazine and e-newsletter.

 
 
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Hearing Loss Film “Hearing Hope” Captures Personal Strength, Scientific Vision

Hearing Health Foundation (HHF) has created a new short film, “Hearing Hope,” to expand awareness of hearing health through the voices of those who benefit from and those who carry out the foundation’s life-changing work.

"It took me longer to talk than most kids. Because I couldn't understand what they were saying so I couldn't copy it," explains Emmy, 7.

"It took me longer to talk than most kids. Because I couldn't understand what they were saying so I couldn't copy it," explains Emmy, 7.

The third most prevalent chronic physical condition in the U.S., hearing loss can affect anyone—from first-grader Emmy to retired U.S. Army Colonel John—but its reach is often underestimated. “It’s one of the most common sensory deficits in humans,” explains cochlear implant surgeon Dr. Anil Lalwani. “I think we have to go from it being hidden to being visible.”

Both a hearing aid user and cochlear implant recipient, seventh-grader Alex is doing his part to make hearing loss less hidden. Smiling, he says he wants people to know that hearing with his devices makes him happy. John wishes to be an advocate for veterans and all who live with hearing loss and tinnitus.

When she received her hearing loss diagnosis at 17, NASA engineer Renee never thought she'd be living her dream.

When she received her hearing loss diagnosis at 17, NASA engineer Renee never thought she'd be living her dream.

The film also highlights resilience in response to the challenges associated with hearing conditions. Video participant Renee saw her dream of becoming an astronaut halted at 17 when her hearing loss was detected. Now she helps send people to space as an engineer at NASA.

Sophia describes the “low, low rock bottom” she hit when she was diagnosed with Usher Syndrome, the leading cause of deafblindness. Yet she feels special knowing her disability shapes her and sets her apart.

Jason recounts having no resources for hearing loss in children when his son, Ethan, failed his newborn hearing screening. Today he’s grateful for Ethan’s aptitude for language, made possible through his early hearing loss intervention.

With the support of HHF, more progress is made each year. “I’m glad that the doctors are trying to figure out how fish and birds can restore their hearing,” says Emmy.

For the past 60 years, HHF has funded promising hearing science and in 2011 established the Hearing Restoration Project (HRP), an international consortium dedicated to finding biological cures for hearing loss using fish, bird, and mouse models to replicate the phenomenon of hearing loss reversal in humans.

“If [the HRP] can achieve that goal of hearing restoration...that would be a marvelous thing for hearing loss,” reiterates Dr. Robert Dobie.

Through “Hearing Hope,” HHF would like to share its mission and message of hope to as many individuals as possible and reassure those with hearing loss and their loved ones they are not alone. As an organization that channels all efforts into research and education, HHF would greatly appreciate any assistance or suggestions to increase visibility of the film.

Watch the full film at www.hhf.org/video. Closed captioning is available.

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The Listening Project

By Vicky Chan and Lauren McGrath

“Most people still assume that if a person is deaf, they’re not able to speak,” narrates Jane Madell, Ph.D., in the opening moments of her documentary film “The Listening Project,” released in March 2018. Her statement sets the tone for the following 38 minutes of personal stories that shatter stigmas about hearing loss.

A New York City-based pediatric audiologist, speech language pathologist, and auditory verbal therapist, Madell created the documentary with award-winning filmmaker Irene Taylor Brodsky to reveal how technology has improved communication—and life—for people with hearing loss.  

Richard, a cochlear implant recipient, is one of the participants in "The Listening Project" who works as a software engineer.

Richard, a cochlear implant recipient, is one of the participants in "The Listening Project" who works as a software engineer.

Brodsky captured interviews of 15 individuals with hearing loss, most of whom Madell treated when they were children. Madell says filming  allowed her to reconnect with her former patients to “see what they had to say about growing up with a hearing loss and what advice they might have for parents of newly identified children with hearing loss.”

The subjects of “The Listening Project” are vibrant young adults living and working all over the world—connected by their gratitude for the technologies and treatments that enable them to hear and talk. The majority are cochlear implant recipients, while the remainder wear hearing aids. They experienced similar anxieties, including not being able to hear everything in social settings, disclosing hearing loss to new acquaintances, and accepting their hearing loss.

If not for modern medical progress, the film’s subjects may not ever have been able to overcome these hurdles. When Madell began her career in audiology 45 years ago, hearing loss treatments were very restrictive. Only children with mild to moderate hearing loss could hear well with hearing aids, and the Food and Drug Administration had not yet approved cochlear implants. Such limitations challenged Madell emotionally early in her practice. Though she smiled and appeared optimistic in front of her patients and their families following a hearing loss diagnosis, she knew how hard they would need to work with inadequate accommodations for their children to succeed.

Madell’s former patients and millions of others are fortunate  changes in hearing technology and policies in recent decades have been dramatic. “We are so lucky we live now and not 30 years ago, 40 years ago,” says one. Another young man adds that the ability to communicate and feel comfortable doing so is “a core human value.” Advancements have made it possible for children with hearing loss to learn spoken language, which Madell believes is critical for educational, social, and professional development and gives them options they would not have otherwise.

Madell hopes the personal stories in “The Listening Project” will help parents of newly diagnosed children, as well as legislators, educators, and healthcare workers. “Parents of children with hearing loss have told me that if they had seen the film before the diagnosis, it would have been easier to deal with,” she says. It shows parents that with the resources and hearing technology available today, hearing and speech are possible for every child.

To learn more about the film for either personal or educational use, visit thelisteningprojectfilm.org.

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