AARP on hidden hearing loss

Photo credit: Ken Lund licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This piece from the AARP discusses hidden hearing loss, although it really discusses the “speech-in-noise” problem. The speech-in-noise problem has been known for decades. Namely, people, usually in mid-life or older, complain that they can’t understand speech in a noisy environment, typically a restaurant, but their hearing tests are normal.

Recent research suggests that these people suffer from what is now called hidden hearing loss. Hidden hearing loss is an inability to process speech in noisy environments. It is called “hidden” because standard hearing tests (pure tone audiometry) are normal, but more sophisticated testing used only in research settings finds abnormal processing of complex sounds. The likely cause of hidden hearing loss is damage to the nerve endings in the inner ear, called cochlear synaptopathy. This scientific article discusses the problem in greater detail.

To me, there are two takeaway lessons from the AARP piece. The first is that the speech-in-noise problem is very common in older people.

The second is that this piece is a call to action. AARP advises us to seek out quieter settings, sit in a restaurant booth, or put the noise behind us and the speaker in front of us.

But the piece assumes that noisy restaurants are an inevitable part of life.

I would advise AARP members to ask the manager to turn down the amplified music. If they refuse, walk out or threaten to file a lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act. And on your way out, tell management that the restaurant is too noisy and you refuse to eat there.  Make sure to note the restaurant’s indifference to your comfort and hearing health in a detailed review on social media, and let your city council representative know about the problem, too.

Restaurant patrons used to have to dine accompanied by unwanted secondhand cigarette smoke. When secondhand smoke was found to be a Class A carcinogen with no known safe level of exposure, we were able to get smoking banned. We have a right to dine without endangering our health.

Noise is also a health hazard, to our hearing and our cardiovascular health. Just as we are entitled to smoke-free restaurants, we have a right to quieter restaurants, too.


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