This Problem Isn't Just for Soldiers

Hearing your commanding officer's orders or the distinct buzz of a falling missile could make the difference between life and death...

This was the reality of World War II soldiers.

If you've watched a World War II movie or documentary, you've heard the distinct whistling sound that German bombs would make as they fell.

Germany used this noise as a weapon of psychological warfare against Allied forces. Bombs like the V-1 and (the later) V-2, would emit a loud hiss, causing panic before they hit their target. The British called the V-1 missiles "buzz bombs" due to the sound.

Once you heard the whistle, you'd have seconds to take cover.

Despite this importance, the military failed to prioritize hearing protection...

Ear protection wasn't common during the war. The V-51R earplugs were developed near the end of the war. So unless a soldier stuck cotton or cigarette filters in his ears, his hearing went unprotected from things like explosions and artillery fire.

Estimates vary, but it's likely that tens of thousands of soldiers coming home suffered hearing loss.

It's a problem that continues to plague the military today. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, hearing damage is the No. 1 disability claim among soldiers.

Soldiers aren't the only ones facing hearing problems...

A study from the University of South Carolina estimates that more than 1 billion young people around the world are at risk for future hearing loss because of their current listening habits.

Loud movies, cellphones, and concerts can cause damage to the ears that compounds over a lifetime and make folks more vulnerable to age-related hearing loss. According to the National Institutes of Health, approximately 1 in 3 U.S. seniors have hearing loss.

So even if you're young and not thinking about the harm you could be doing to your hearing, you should understand why hearing loss is so important...

First, when we can't hear well, our brains work too hard to try and understand speech. A functional MRI study from Ohio State University demonstrated that folks with mild hearing loss had greater brain activity. More of their brains had to work harder to hear and make sense of speech.

In case you thought "greater brain activity" sounded like a good thing, we're not talking about the brain-training exercises that target specific parts of the brain to prevent decline.

Instead, the researchers believe that folks with hearing loss put too much stress on a part of the brain that's not designed to work with hearing... and this overworking contributes to dementia.

Second, hearing loss decreases social engagement. This is easy to understand... It's frustrating and embarrassing to ask people to repeat themselves. Eventually, it's just easier to stop going to restaurants, festivals, exercise classes, and the like.

The problem... social isolation leads to early death. Researchers from Brigham Young University found that loneliness and social isolation increase your risk of early death by as much as 50%. What's more, lack of socialization also contributes to cognitive decline. That's why staying engaged and active as we age is so important for keeping our minds sharp.

So if you notice your television volume creeping up (or your kids complaining about how loud it is), you should have a hearing exam. Similarly, if conversations at restaurants become impossible to follow or you stop going out with friends because it's too hard to hear in public areas, make an appointment as soon as you can.

Some insurance plans will offer coverage for an evaluation. 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 screening to see if you need to go in for a full test. The National Hearing Test is a simple evaluation you can take in the privacy of your own home. You register online, pay $8, and receive a code to use. (It's free if you have an AARP membership.) Then you get on the phone (ideally a wired landline), call the number, and punch in your code.

Better still, if you have the chance, is to take steps now to prevent or contain hearing loss... Noise-related hearing loss is irreversible, but further damage is avoidable. As we wrote a few months ago:

1. Use headphones carefully. The National Health Service of the U.K. recommends staying below 60% of the maximum volume on headphones. And be sure to not use headphones for a long period – take a five-minute break every hour.

2. Use earplugs. Anytime you're around extremely loud equipment or environments – like using a chainsaw or going to a concert – be sure to wear ear protection.

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.

These simple steps could help you prevent hearing loss down the road.

What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
May 7, 2024