Hearing loss is a prevalent health concern that millions of people are navigating today. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, 1 in 8 people in the U.S. (age 12 and older) experiences some degree of hearing impairment. Veterans have an increased risk of developing hearing loss because they are disproportionately exposed to dangerous levels of noise. In addition to physical injuries, challenges to mental and emotional health, hearing loss is another medical condition that can significantly impact a veteran’s life and well-being.
There are several factors that contribute to the development of hearing loss which can be experience by people of any age. Contributing factors include:
- Existing Medical Conditions: such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, viral and bacterial infections etc. can contribute to hearing loss.
- Genetic History: it is possible to inherit mutated genes that could impact one’s hearing health.
- Exposure to Loud Noise: short or long term can permanently damage your hearing. Being exposed to loud noise at work, concerts, sporting events etc. consistently can cause your hearing to suffer.
- Veterans are particularly vulnerable to developing hearing loss because they are navigating environments where they are constantly exposed to loud noise.
Increased Risk for Veterans
Soldiers are at high risk for developing impaired hearing due to long-term exposure to loud noise which includes the following:
- Operating and being near weapons: shotguns, rifles, grenades, blast exposure etc.
- Aircrafts: airplanes, fighter jets, helicopters
- Armored vehicles and tanks
- Elevated voices because environments are loud so people commonly shout instructions, drills, names etc.
Absorbing this noise impacts critical parts of the ear that are needed for the hearing process. Loud noise causes the hair cells and fluid in the cochlea to vibrate (more than normal). Consistent loud noise can cause these hair cells to lose sensitivity from being overworked. The hair cells and fluid in the inner ear helps translate soundwaves into electrical signals that are then sent to the brain to process and make meaning of.
Veterans and Hearing Loss
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, hearing health issues are, “by far the most prevalent service-connected disability among American Veterans”. At the end of 2014, more than 933,000 Veterans were receiving disability compensation for hearing loss nearly 1.3 million received compensation for tinnitus (which is a ringing or buzzing noise in one or both ears).
In addition to this information, a study conducted in 2019 on the impact of exposure to blasts, shows that hearing loss is a common effect. Published in the Journal of Neurotrauma, this study evaluated data from the Department of Defense (DOD) on veterans who suffer from traumatic brain injury caused by exposure to high-intensity blast waves.
DOD reports between 2000 and 2017 show that nearly 380,000 military service members were diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury. In examining these reports, researchers found that the most common sensory impact was hearing. Up to 87% of these veterans reported experiencing difficulties with hearing.
These statistics show that hearing loss (and issues related to hearing loss) are extremely prevalent among veterans.
The first step in addressing any impairment is having your hearing assessed. Hearing tests are relatively simple, quick, and painless. A hearing test involves wearing headphones and being guided through sounds (and speech) by a hearing healthcare specialist. These sounds are played at various frequencies and volumes; and you will indicate (typically by pressing a button) when you hear a tone. This will determine what you are able to hear in both ears, any impairment, the degree, and specific type of hearing loss you may be experiencing.
Luckily, there are several effective ways that hearing loss is treated. The most common treatment is hearing aids. These are small electronic devices that help absorb, amplify, and process sound allowing you to hear significantly better. Hearing aids, like much of the electronics we see and use today, have experienced innovation in recent years. There are now a variety of options, features, and technologies available to meet your specific hearing needs!
It is important to check in with the VA to be informed about the benefits and insurance you are eligible for!