Life is loud.

Think about noise from the perspective of your ears and the bombardment of sounds heard throughout the day. According to medical experts, we are gradually damaging our hearing. Current research indicates that hearing loss afflicts more than 28 million Americans. For approximately 10 million individuals, these impairments are at least partially attributable to damage from exposure to loud sounds.

The impact of noise

Sound is measured in decibels. According to medical professionals, noises above 75 decibels can cause hearing damage. Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) can be caused by a one-time, intense impulse, such as an explosion, or by continuous exposure to noise, such as that experienced by a lawn-mowing crew or workers in a machine shop.

For individuals exposed to continuous high levels of noise, the symptoms of NIHL may appear gradually. Sounds may become distorted or muffled, and it may be difficult to understand other people talking.

Hearing loss at work

Hearing loss is one of the most common occupational injuries in the United States. More than 30 million workers are regularly exposed to toxic noise, and another nine million are at risk for hearing loss from other materials in the workplace. For example, some types of solvents or metals may react with oxygen in the ear and cause NIHL. Hearing loss is the second most common occupational illness or injury reported by workers.

Consequences of hearing loss

Hearing loss may also result in a variety of psychological, social or physical consequences for individuals, including depression, fear, anxiety, paranoia, emotional instability, concentration problems, vertigo, headaches and muscle pain, exhaustion and fatigue, stress and high blood pressure, and eating or sleep disorders.

Savor the silence

The good news is that hearing loss can be prevented or minimized by following these suggestions:

• Turn down the volume when listening to music, movies and other forms of entertainment, use noise-cancelling ear buds or headphones.
• Purchase disposable foam earplugs — available for about $1 at most pharmacies — to protect your ears from loud noises caused by things such as lawn mowers, power tools, leaf blowers, motorcycles or fireworks.
• Before attending a loud music concert, action movie or motor-racing event, purchase high-fidelity earplugs. Standard options are available at many music stores, or order custom-fit earplugs from an audiologist (a health professional trained to identify, measure and treat hearing loss).

Fortunately, there are treatment options for hearing loss. Individuals experiencing some type of hearing problem should seek medical assistance and treatment from an audiologist or otolaryngologist (a physician who specializes in diseases of the ear, nose, throat, head and neck).

Proactive hearing protection

The increased volume of our world is raising awareness of the importance of preventing hearing loss. Employers are taking proactive steps to eliminate or reduce excessive noises in the work environment and to remind employees to protect their hearing. They are also encouraging employees to seek routine hearing examinations to establish a benchmark for their hearing or treatment for hearing loss concerns. Many employers across the country are also providing hearing-benefit options to employees.

Insurance carriers currently offer several hearing-benefit choices, such as discount plans that employers can provide as a voluntary benefit, or are incorporating hearing examination procedures into existing medical-plan benefits. Since hearing benefits feature high value at a relatively low cost, many employers today are adding this option to their employee benefit packages.

Karen M. Gustin, LLIF, is vice president-groupmarketing and managed care for Ameritas Group, a division of Ameritas Life Insurance Corp. (a UNIFI Company), with headquarters in Lincoln, Neb. Ameritas is one of the nation’s leading providers of dental and eye care products and services. Gustin’s tenure with Ameritas Group spans 25 years. She is involved with the National Association of Dental Plans (NADP), serving on the board and chairing the Research Commission.