The men and women who serve our country in uniform too often endure incapacitating mental, physical, and emotional challenges after their service is finished. While healthcare for veterans is a continuing discussion, relatively little attention has been paid to the most common disabilities diagnosed in veterans: Tinnitus and hearing loss.
Even if you factor in age and occupation, there’s a 30% higher chance of veterans having severe hearing impairment compared to civilians. Though service-related hearing loss has been documented going back to World War 2, the numbers are even more stunning for military personnel who served more recently. Veterans who have served recently are commonly among the younger group of service members and are also as much as four times more likely to have hearing impairment than non-veterans.
Why Are Veterans at Greater Risk For Hearing Loss?
The answer is simple: Exposure to noise. Some professions are clearly louder than others. For example, a librarian will be working in a relatively quiet environment. The sound level that they would normally be exposed to would be from 30dB (a whisper) to 60 dB (average conversation).
For civilians who are at the other end of the sonic scale, like an urban construction worker, the danger rises. Sounds you’d constantly hear (heavy traffic, about 85 dB) or periodically (an ambulance siren’s about 120 dB) are at unsafe levels, and that’s only background noise. Research has shown that construction equipment noise, everything from power tools to bulldozers, exposes laborers to noises louder than 85 dB.
Construction sites are undoubtedly loud, but individuals in the military are regularly exposed to noise that is much louder. In combat settings, troops are exposed to gunfire (150 dB), grenades (158 dB), and heavy artillery (180 dB). But military bases, whether at home or overseas, are none too quiet either. On the deck of an aircraft carrier, sound levels can range from 130-160 dB; engine rooms might be inside (and no jets), but they’re still very loud. Noise levels for aviators are high as well, with helicopters on the low end (about 95-100 dB) and most jets and other aircraft going above 100 dB. Another worry: Some jet fuels, according to one study, interrupt the auditory process causing hearing impairment.
Our service men and women don’t have the option of opting out, as a 2015 study clearly demonstrates. They have to cope with noise exposure in order to accomplish missions and even day-to-day activities. And even the best performing, standard issue, hearing protection often isn’t enough to protect against some of these noises.
What Can Veterans do to Deal With Hearing Loss?
Although hearing loss due to noise exposure is irreversible, the impairment can be reduced with hearing aids. The most prevalent type of hearing loss among veterans is a decreased ability to hear high-pitch sounds, but this form of hearing loss can be remedied with specialized hearing aids. Tinnitus is frequently a symptom of another health issue and although it can’t be cured, there are also treatment options for it.
In serving our country, veterans have already made many sacrifices. Hearing shouldn’t have to be one of them.