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Tech to protect against (and remedy) hearing loss

Most people experience some loss of hearing acuity as they age, but you can take steps to protect the hearing you do have

Last month in this space, we examined the process of hearing loss, indications it’s happening to you or someone you work with, and how to document it. Most people experience some loss of hearing acuity as they age, but you can take steps to protect the hearing you do have for as long as possible. 

My generation was warned about the hazard of attending overly loud rock concerts, and those undoubtedly took their toll on some fans. Portable music players such as the Walkman and later the iPod piped that music directly into the ear canal for prolonged periods. 

Now those early users are in their 40s, and they are experiencing the long-term effects of loud music. 

In-Ear Protection
These days, people listen to music played through their phones. Most phones have an internal setting that limits the maximum volume pumped through the earphones — on the iPod/iPhone, it’s at Settings | General | Restrictions | Enable Restrictions and Settings | Music | Volume Limit — to a level pre-determined by the holder of the phone’s restrictions passcode. 

It’s not a bad idea to set this for yourself as well as for any kids who use your phone or have their own. They’ll hate you for it, of course, but that’s half the fun of being a parent.

It’s common sense — and usually required — that everyone on a gun range wear hearing protection, and the ear defenders most people use are adequate, but maybe not optimal. People who spend a lot of time on a range may invest in amplified ear protection, which boosts normal-range sound so you can hear people talking to you, but shuts down the microphones when gunfire is detected. These devices typically run $50-$300, and it’s difficult for the casual user to gauge how effective they are.

If you have an iPhone or iPod, an inexpensive ($9.99) alternative is the Gunsonics app. Gunsonics pairs your iPhone earphones with passive ear defenders to create an electronic ear defender that reacts to gun reports much more quickly than conventional electronic ear protectors.

The earphones used with an iPhone incorporate a microphone, so the user can talk over the phone. Gunsonics uses this microphone to pick up ambient sounds and route them under the ear defenders (you put in the earphones, then put the ear defenders over them) so you can hear clearly. At the sound of a gunshot or other high-pressure sound wave, the iPhone computer shuts down the microphone and suppresses the noise.

The iPhone processor is much more agile than the one used in most electronic ear defenders, so the reaction time is considerably faster. The reaction time is demonstrated in this video.

An alternative hearing protection device you might want to consider for everyday use (not just on the range) is the EB15-LE electronic earplug from Etymotic. The EB15-LEs fit in the ear snugly the way a hearing aid might, and have no external cord or cable. They amplify ambient sound up to 5 times, but clamp down on sound transmission when loud noises are detected. The ear plugs use standard zinc-air hearing aid batteries obtainable at any drug store.

EB-15-LEs can be worn every day, and may improve your ability to hear ambient sounds as well as protect you from loud noises. If you use an earphone for your radio, however, these may not be your best choice: As of this writing, they aren’t compatible with two-way radio headsets. 

Amplification Alternatives
If you already have a hearing loss, or think you have one, and you’re a Costco member, you should avail yourself of their hearing aid department. Costco warehouses with hearing aid centers (you can find which warehouses have these by searching the Costco.com website and specifying those selling hearing aids) will test your hearing for free by appointment. If you do have a hearing loss, most centers will program a set of hearing aids for you on the spot and allow you to try them out in the store for 30 minutes or so. You can decide whether they provide you a benefit or not.

Prices for hearing aids at Costco are at least competitive with chain hearing aid stores and private audiologists’ offices, and they frequently have much better deals. The store-branded Kirkland hearing aids that are their most popular model sell for $1,900 delivered, which is considerably less than you will pay for comparable devices elsewhere. The hearing aids are manufactured by Rexton, a standard hearing aid brand sold elsewhere.

Purchase of hearing aids is usually not covered by health insurance, but you may find the investment is worth it. Many people who acquire hearing aids experience a whole new part of life they didn’t know they were missing.

Even though you can always buy hearing aids, preserving the hearing you have is the best approach.

Take care of yourself, and enjoy the gift of hearing.

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