It started with the hollowing of animal horns in the 13th century...
For folks who grew hard of hearing in their later years, the funnel-shaped horns – taken from the heads of cows and rams – helped gather traveling soundwaves and direct them toward the eardrum...
But the horns did not work well as an aid to one's hearing.
Nor did the invention that followed in the 17th century – the ear trumpet – which used the same concept, but was manufactured using metal or wood.
Turns out, it was the 1876 invention of the telephone which ushered in the technology needed to alter the volume, frequency, and distortion of sounds. After that, the development of the hearing aid took on new life, and evolved quite drastically over the years...
Today, most hearing aids are virtually invisible... a stark contrast from the huge contraptions they once were. So plenty of folks are able to benefit from them without the world having to know.
And this is great news, because not hearing well can accidentally kill you...
We all have two groups of organs that play an enormous role in our ability to balance. They're collectively called the vestibular system, and they're both located deep inside the inner parts of our ears, behind the eardrums.
So when our hearing ability changes – a common occurrence as we age – it tends to throw off our balance, too. A 2013 study from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found that every 10 decibels of hearing loss was associated with a 1.4 times increased risk of falling.
And as we get older, falling becomes more dangerous. Every year, 684,000 people die after suffering a fall... And even if you survive your fall, reduced mobility after an injury will have other physical and psychological effects.
But if your hearing has changed, there's an easy way to save you from a potentially deadly fall...
Wear hearing aids.
A recent study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that wearing hearing aids reduced a person's odds of falling by 50%.
Aside from improving your balance, hearing aids offer a number of other benefits, like improved communication and reduced feelings of loneliness.
And as a preventive measure to hearing loss, take these steps to protect your ears from damage and to identify and address problems early on...
1. Use headphones carefully. The National Health Service of the U.K. recommends staying below 60% of the maximum volume on headphones. In fact, a good solution if you need to tune out surrounding noise is to get some noise-canceling headphones. I love how they let me listen at lower volumes even when background noise is high. And be sure to not use headphones for a long period – take a five-minute break every hour.
2. Use earplugs. Noise-canceling headphones are great for routine noise. Sometimes, though, you need something heavy-duty. Anytime you're around extremely loud equipment or environments, be sure to wear ear protection. That includes things like using a chainsaw, mowing the lawn, or going to a concert. Do what I do and always carry earplugs. I put them in while flying on really loud planes or driving my tractors. I also use a monitor and alert on my smartwatch and phone that tell me when I'm in a loud area for too long.
3. Keep your ears clean. Impacted wax is the simplest reason for hearing trouble. If you want to clean your ears, use a damp cloth and maybe a few drops of baby oil to try and break it up. Never shove anything in your ear, including cotton swabs. At best, they'll just push the wax further into your ear canal. At worst, they can puncture your eardrum. If you can't break it up safely, see a specialist called an otolaryngologist.
4. Get your hearing tested. If you've never had a hearing test, it's a good idea to get a baseline test done and recheck as needed. Be sure to ask about insurance coverage, as some plans will offer coverage for an evaluation. However, few insurance plans will cover much for hearing aids. And keep in mind that hearing evaluations held at stores that sell hearing aids often will try to push you to purchase one.
For a more affordable and impartial option, try a phone test to see if you need to go in for a full test. The National Hearing Test is a simple screening test you can take in the privacy of your own home. You register online, pay $8, and receive a code to use. Then you get on the phone (ideally a landline), call the number, and punch in your code.
It only takes about 10 minutes and evaluates both ears. The key is to follow up with a doctor within a year if you show signs of any impairment.
Look, I know age-related changes in our abilities – of all sorts – can be hard to accept. But when it comes to making choices that directly affect my odds of living versus dying... it's a no-brainer. I'll choose living every time.
What We're Reading...
- In case you missed it: Three ways to escape death this winter.
- Something different: Sniffing women's tears may reduce aggression in men.
Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,
Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
January 9, 2024