My father served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and the Korean War. A lieutenant when he left service, Dad always got a kick out of my U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps uniform and how closely it resembled the Navy uniform. When I made Captain, he liked to say I had as many stripes on one shoulder as he had on both.
Like many others from the Greatest Generation, Dad’s military service included extensive exposure to loud noise which contributed to significant hearing loss as he aged. By his 60s, he had to cut back his legal practice when he could no longer hear the judges presiding over the courtroom.
Unfortunately, his story is not unique. Hearing loss is the third most common chronic health condition in the U.S., surpassing diabetes and cancer.
As CDC’s latest Vital Signs report reveals, exposure to noises at an early age, even off the job, can have serious consequences to people as they age. In fact, everyday loud noises in our homes and communities – such as mowing our lawns, blowing leaves, attending concerts, or even being stuck in traffic with sirens blaring – are potentially damaging our hearing.
According to our findings, an estimated 40 million adults – or 1 in 4 – have hearing loss as a result of too much noise. In addition, almost one-third of those who work in noisy environments had hearing damage in one or both ears.
Surprisingly, we found that more than half of U.S. adults with hearing damage from noise do not have noisy jobs, meaning their noise exposure likely comes from everyday activities at home and in the community. In addition, we found that about 1 in 4 adults who reported having good to excellent hearing already have hearing damage – meaning this issue is under-recognized and under-reported.
While we continue to gather data to shed light on the impact of noise exposure in our homes and communities, there are steps we can all take now. Protecting our hearing from loud sounds is relatively simple and doesn’t cost much. For example:
- Avoid noisy places. If you have to be in a noisy environment, try to minimize how long you are there.
- Use earplugs or protective ear muffs when exposed to prolonged or loud noises.
- At home and in the car, keep the volume down. And even though the evidence is mixed about whether earbuds or headphones contribute to hearing loss, it’s still smart to keep the volume down and take breaks from listening.
- If you know you’ve had extensive exposure to loud noise, or if you’re concerned that you aren’t hearing as well as you used to, talk to your doctor about a hearing test.
Although my dad would never have traded his time in the Navy, it’s clear his service experience contributed to his hearing loss.
Dad benefited from hearing aids provided by the Veterans Administration, was part of a lip-reading group, and was surrounded by a loving supportive family. Nevertheless he found profound hearing loss to be isolating and frustrating.
Exposure to noise can cause stress, anxiety, depression, and high blood pressure, as well as longer term effects on hearing. And once hearing loss occurs, it is lost forever.
The good news is that the federal government – including the U.S. military – and other sectors, such as industry, have taken steps to reduce exposure to loud noise in the workplace. But noise exposure at home and in the community still needs attention. That’s why it’s so important to protect your hearing while you still have it – don’t wait until it’s too late.
Anne Schuchat is the Acting Director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Acting Administrator for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Rear Admiral, U.S. Public Health Service.