According to the Pew Research Center, there are approximately 19 million veterans in the United States population as of 2020.
This demographic represents less than 10 percent of the total American population and yet, our veterans account for many of the country’s cases of both hearing loss and tinnitus. Knowing that supporting the health and well being of those that have served our country, it stands to reason that treatment for these debilitating disorders should rise to the top of our priority list.
Hearing health and the military
Tinnitus and hearing loss are respectively the numbers one and two health conditions impacting military personnel and veterans as reported by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical centers.
In terms of why exactly our service people are losing their hearing health at accelerated rates, we have to look at the levels of noise inherent in the occupation.
The military ranks high in lists of excessive noise-exposure occupations
The military is one of the leading professions for hearing loss. Among the millions of occupations one might engage in, military service is the fourth most dangerous to hearing health. Surprisingly (or unsurprisingly if you’ve ever spent time around boisterous and emotional children), school teachers remain in the occupation with the highest rates of noise-induced hearing loss.
What is noise-induced hearing loss?
Excessive noise damages the integral inner ear cells responsible for receiving the noise of the world and turning it into sound information to be delivered to the brain. These are non-regenerative cells, like those found elsewhere in the body, that do not repair themselves when damaged. Once we lose a sensitive inner ear cell, it is gone for good. We are then trying to hear the same amount of external noise with less ability to register those sounds. Our brains receive less sound information for processing. Our experience is that we hear less.
Excessive noise can harm these cells all at once, like in an explosion or crash, or slowly and over time with less violent volumes that are still doing damage.
How loud is considered dangerous?
Noises over 85 decibels (the unit of measurement for sound) can harm hearing. In a violent explosion or crash, sounds can reach up to 160 or 170 decibels which will do immediate harm to your hearing. Extremely loud sound environments may even be felt immediately with a pain in your ears or muffled sound (like you are underwater) persisting after the event.
But even slightly too loud sounds can still harm hearing health over time. While sounds over 120 decibels will do immediate and even noticeable damage, sounds in excess of 85 decibels will slowly erode your hearing health when exposure time lengthens.
Gunfire registers at around 145-155 decibels. Jet engines clock in at around 120-140 decibels. An IED (improvised explosive device) will emit sounds of up to 170 decibels. These are all common sounds for military personnel. What’s more, in the field, military members are less likely to wear hearing protection because easy communication with their peers are inherently linked to their safety and survival.
What exactly is tinnitus?
A majority of the military have escaped hearing loss, but still have a troubling hearing health condition called tinnitus. The number one health condition facing veterans, tinnitus is the persistent ringing (or buzzing or whooshing) sound heard when no external sound is present. It’s a condition that is annoying at best and completely debilitating in most cases. It often leads to increased anxiety and depression.
Finding hidden hearing loss
A higher than normal amount of veterans experience a condition known as hidden hearing loss. This condition is highly associated with blast exposure. Undetectable in standard hearing exams, hidden hearing loss or auditory processing disorder is defined by trouble understanding speech. Instead of the hearing health damage occurring in the ear, the broken link is instead in the brain’s processing centers.
Treatment for hearing loss and tinnitus in veterans
Veterans Affairs account for one in five hearing aids that are sold annually within the United States, so we know that hearing loss is being treated in the veteran population. And still, we could do more to support our country’s service people. If you know a veteran who suffers from hearing loss, urge them to seek diagnosis and treatment for their condition. Even mild hearing loss can be successfully treated with hearing aids, resulting in decreased instances of depression and improved relationships with loved ones.