Listen. That’s the sound of Americans permanently harming their hearing.
Fittingly enough, hearing loss is the silent scourge of American and world health. While the fights against other ailments receive more attention and both private resources and government support, damage to inner ears and their functions is a burgeoning problem. Fortunately, it is largely preventable.
March 3, National Ear Day, is a perfect occasion to reflect on this muted condition, which has surprisingly broad consequences. According to the Minneapolis-based Starkey Hearing Foundation, the United States endures an estimated annual financial cost of $186 billion due to hearing loss. About $100 billion of this sum reflects reduced productivity among workers with impaired hearing, the lower wages that this predicament causes them to earn, and the economic expense of unemployment among those with the most severe auditory deficits.
As Lydia Denworth of the Washington Post News Service reports, some 414,000 veterans of the Afghan and Iraqi wars endure diminished hearing, ringing in their ears, or both, as of 2012. Hostile roadside bombs and friendly ship engines are among the culprits. The Department of Veterans Affairs spends $2 billion annually on hearing-related disability payments. As one Pentagon panel observed, “not all injuries bleed.”
Hearing loss among teenagers, meanwhile, has risen 30 percent in just the last decade. Especially for younger kids, hearing injuries hinder communication skills. This can lead to poor academic performance and even social isolation.
“Roughly one in five children and teens today suffers from hearing loss,” says Starkey vice president Dave Fabry, a former chief audiologist at the Mayo Clinic. “Most of these cases occur as a result of unprotected noise exposure, from concerts, personal players, or other sources of non-occupational noise exposure.”
Motion pictures, and especially movie previews, seem louder than ever. Screeching subway wheels, moaning garbage trucks, and roaring motorcycles — the latter two seemingly untouched by mufflers — help make New York City the second-highest-decibel place I ever have encountered. Only Bangkok has been tougher on my ears.
State and local governments lately have battled everything from energy drinks to children’s lemonade stands. Nearly all such jurisdictions strictly enforce liquor licenses rather than leave adults free to buy and sell alcoholic beverages at will. These same officials should redirect these resources to enforce noise codes. Neither people nor machines should disturb the peace and assault the tranquility of quiet, law-abiding citizens.
Back in the private sector, the Starkey Foundation is the nonprofit arm of Starkey Hearing Technologies, America’s largest hearing-aid manufacturer. The foundation collaborates with celebrities who have a professional interest in preserving the world’s eardrums.
“You can’t reverse hearing loss, but you can prevent it,” says Elton John. “Because hearing is my livelihood, I remind myself of this daily.” The international superstar flew to Manila in December 2012 to help Starkey fit needy Filipinos with hearing aids. “Musicians have known for years how important it is to protect their hearing around loud sounds and music,” Sir Elton adds. “I am thrilled that Listen Carefully is providing a platform to bring this important message to our fans.”
The Listen Carefully campaign aims to slow, if not stop, hearing loss among young people, before it becomes an epidemic. Turning down the volume on headphones and wearing earplugs at concerts can forestall the slow decay of this vital sense.
Starkey has given away hearing aids to some 50,000 low-income Americans over the past 15 years while recycling 400,000 hearing devices. Overseas, it has conducted missions in 64 countries to test the hearing of the poor and provide instruments to those who need them. Starkey is committed to fit more than 1 million hearing aids among the disadvantaged during the 2010s.
While HIV/AIDS, breast cancer, and other, higher-profile diseases generate headlines and garner billions in research funds, hearing loss barely rates a whisper. And while Starkey’s invaluable efforts certainly help, this malady needs even more people to make some noise.
— Deroy Murdock is a Manhattan-based Fox News contributor and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University.