If there’s any upside to hearing loss it’s that you’ve always got an excuse to fall back on when you’re not practicing good listening skills. My excuse is called tinnitus, or ringing in the ears. Imagine a high-pitched squeal running in a reliably endless loop in your head (sort of like a John Cage symphony). It doesn’t work on My Lovely Wife, of course, who knows instinctively when I’m not paying attention — which is much of the time. But I can use it on friends and coworkers, to a certain point. People tend to be sympathetic; I’m an old guy.
Most folks tend to think of hearing loss as being an inevitable product of aging.
Like anything else, you get old and the ears gradually become more proficient at sprouting hair than at interpreting sounds. But that’s not necessarily the case. As Jane Brody reports in the New York Times, we live in a very noisy world, and we’re not very good at protecting our ears from all that racket.
“Tens of millions of Americans, including 12 percent to 15 percent of school-age children, already have permanent hearing loss caused by the everyday noise that we take for granted as a fact of life,” Brody writes.
And this hearing loss is cumulative, so every time you plug in your ear buds and crank up the volume to listen to your favorite tunes you’re killing off some of the fragile hair cells that stimulate the auditory nerve fibers that allow your brain to interpret sounds. Anything above 85 decibels (about as loud as a hair dryer) is going to do some damage.
I’ve never been an ear-bud kind of guy, but I’ve attended plenty of concerts and sporting events that have left my ears in a state of white-noise-induced shock. Add to that the high-volume urban cacophony of sirens and traffic I encounter every day, and I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I’m often asking people to repeat themselves. The bigger surprise, given the number of hearing-impaired Americans out there, is that more people aren’t asking me to repeat myself. Could be they’re just better listeners than I am.