The sounds all around us—from Lady Gaga belting out her latest ballad to the buzzing of an electric toothbrush—come in loud and clear thanks to a truly miraculous feat of bioengineering. We're born with 20,000 or so microscopic hair cells that carpet our inner ear; a tiny hair springs out of each one. Sound waves reach them via the ear canal, rippling the hairs; those oscillations trigger the cells to send electric signals to the brain's temporal lobe, where the auditory cortex receives and deciphers the noise's what, where, and why. And all this happens in under a second. The quality of our internal audio system hinges on those hair cells. "They're resilient, but their ability to withstand harm diminishes with age and years of noise exposure—or, suddenly, if a sound is loud enough—until the damage becomes irreversible and the cells die," explains Darius Kohan, MD, a clinical associate professor of otolaryngology at NYU Langone School of Medicine.
Because we have so many of those hair cells, up to a third can go out of commission before we notice a drop in function, usually happening in our 60s or later. After age 65, approximately one in three adults will experience a perceptible deficiency. And it isn't just an age-related issue: About a quarter of people between ages 20 and 69 today have evidence of noise damage, too. This is no mere inconvenience. An attention-grabbing 2018 study at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, found that after five years, untreated hearing loss can raise one's risk of dementia by 50 percent, compared with those who have been treated.
"We believe this is due in part to something called cognitive load," says Frank R. Lin, MD, PhD, a professor of otolaryngology, medicine, mental health, and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and one of the study's authors. "As your brain devotes more and more energy to making sense of the muffled signals it's receiving, it becomes less effective at processing other things, like learning and memory." Lin and his team have also found a 40 percent increased risk of depression in the same group, likely due to the fact that those who can't hear well become less interested in engaging socially. In other words, when you protect your ears, your general health reaps the benefits. Here are some key preventive steps you can take today.
Lower the Volume
Long or repeated exposure to anything at or above 85A-weighted decibels (dBA) is harmful. This includes blasting tunes into earbuds so loudly (90 to 110 dBA) that seat neighbors give you the side-eye, a blender (90 dBA), and even a screaming teenager (90 dBA). Instead, aim to keep your earbuds in the safe middle range of the volume scale on your phone (up to 75 dBA). Even better, buy over-the-ear noise-canceling headphones which block more ambient noise, so you won't be inclined to play your music as loudly, says Lin.
You can also download apps like SoundPrint or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's NIOSH Sound Level Meter; both turn your phone into a decibel reader to help you gauge the volume levels at your favorite hangouts.
Raise Your Pulse
Regular physical activity cuts your risk of hearing loss, possibly because it improves blood flow to the inner ear. Researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital, in Boston, looked at the health data of more than 68,000 women and found that those who regularly walked at least two hours a week had a 15 percent lower future risk of hearing loss, compared with those who logged under an hour. However, beware of workout classes with booming soundtracks, and if you can't resist, bring earplugs. A 2016 study of 17 spinning-style classes found that cyclists were exposed on average to 32 minutes of music over 100 dBA, which can damage in half that time.
Adapt What You Eat
Recent findings suggest that two diets, the Mediterranean (emphasizing vegetables, fruit, fish, whole grains, and olive oil) and DASH (similar, but lower in sodium), may not only help us live longer but also protect our hearing. A 2018 study published in The Journal of Nutrition, which followed more than 70,000 women over 22 years, found that those who regularly followed either regimen had a 30 percent lower likelihood of moderate-or-worse hearing loss. Further research suggests that the omega-3 fatty acids recommended in those plans—found in fish, and known to support heart health—may also help improve vascular function to the ears.
Be Noise-Free for Three
…minutes, that is. At least that's what Julian Treasure, a London-based musician-turned-sound-consultant, recommends. This simple practice of observing three minutes of silence each day can do wonders when it comes to resetting your ears. Not only can this help them better recognize and focus on sounds that really matter, but it can also double as a mini meditation for your mind. After all, everyone needs a little quiet time.
Keep Things Clean
By now you know to leave your ears alone. Your earbuds, on the other hand, often go straight into our pockets, on to our desks, or get buried in the bottoms of purses and backpacks among other germy places. For proper maintenance all around, try and disinfect earbuds regularly with alcohol wipes, suggests Clean My Space founder, Melissa Maker.
Do a Sound Check
There are no federal guidelines for hearing testing, but if you're in your 50s, consider getting a baseline exam done with an audiologist. And no matter your age, if you suspect something may be wrong, visit an otolaryngologist. She'll order screening tests if she suspects systemic loss. Thanks to recent federal legislation, hearing aids will be available over the counter for the first time starting next year, so solutions will soon be more varied and less expensive than ever before. The goal? To make them as accessible as reading glasses, which would guarantee easy listening for all.