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Listen Up! Easy Ways to Protect Your Hearing

Keep your ears healthy for years to come with these expert tips.

It may not surprise you to learn that nearly one-third of adults age 65 and older have some hearing loss. But the same is true of 14 percent of adults ages 45 to 64. Left untreated, hearing loss can cause communication problems at work and at home, and it has been linked to serious conditions such as depression and dementia.

Noise-related hearing loss is a common type of hearing loss, and it's usually irreversible. "If you think something is too loud, it probably is," says Pam Mason, director of audiology professional practices for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). And the louder a sound is, the less time you can listen to it without sustaining damage.

Here, Mason offers simple ways to keep your hearing sharp for the future.

Test for decibels
Being exposed to noise levels between 80 and 90 decibels (dB) for hours every day can cause hearing loss, but so can a mere 15 minutes of exposure to sounds above 105 dB every week. Many people don't realize just how noisy everyday life can be. For a quick reality check, download a decibel meter app on your smartphone and spot-check throughout the day. Or visit ASHA.org to learn the decibel levels of common activities. A few examples: A blow-dryer is 80 to 90 dB, a gas-powered lawn mower is 106 dB, and a siren is 120 dB.

Be careful with ear buds
If someone three feet away can hear what's playing through your ear buds, your music is probably too loud. To avoid the urge to turn up the volume in a noisy environment, switch to noise-cancelling headphones or sound-isolating earphones. Both can block background sounds and make it easier to listen at a healthy level.

Upgrade the earplugs
Yes, inexpensive foam plugs will help muffle outside sounds (say, when you're trimming hedges), but they also reduce sound quality. That's why musicians and concertgoers prefer high-fidelity ER-20 musician earplugs, which reduce noise fatigue but not sound quality. They are available in universal-fit models starting around $25.

Give your ears a break
Stuck in a noisy venue without earplugs? Take a 10-minute break from the racket every so often, or avoid loud noise the next day. Research shows that ears need at least 16 hours of rest to recover after two hours in a noisy club.

Ask about meds
Drugs that hamper hearing are called "ototoxic." Some also cause tinnitus (ringing in the ears), balance issues, vertigo, or dizziness. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if you are taking any ototoxic medicines, which can include certain chemotherapy agents, antibiotics, diuretics, aspirin products, and ibuprofen.

Seek a screening
ASHA recommends that adults be screened every 10 years up to age 50 and every three years thereafter. Have ringing in your ears? Mason recommends seeing an audiologist right away. "Tinnitus is often the first signal that someone has a hearing problem, and it's often the first sign of noise-induced hearing loss," says Mason. It can also be a symptom of other issues, such as high blood pressure or a tumor, so don't delay.