The men and women who serve our country in uniform too often suffer debilitating mental, physical, and emotional difficulties after their service is finished. Within the continuing dialogue about veteran’s healthcare, the most frequently diagnosed disability is often relatively overlooked: Hearing loss and tinnitus.
Veterans are 30% more likely than civilians to suffer from severe hearing impairment, even when occupation and age are factored in. Hearing loss, related to military service, has been documented at least back to the second world war, but it’s much more prevalent in veterans who have served more recently. Veterans who have served recently are commonly among the younger group of service members and are also up to four times more likely to have hearing impairment than non-veterans.
Why Are Veterans at Greater Risk For Hearing Loss?
Two words: Exposure to noise. Some occupations are clearly noisier than others. Librarians, for example, are usually in a more quiet environment. Thet would most likely be exposed to decibel levels ranging from a whisper (about 30 dB) to normal conversation (60 dB).
At the other end of the sonic scale, for civilians at least, let’s say you’re a construction worker, and you work on a job site that’s in the city. Background noises you would periodically hear, like the siren of an emergency vehicle (120dB), or continuously, like heavy city traffic, are hazardous to your hearing. Research has found that construction equipment noise, everything from power tools to heavy loaders, exposes workers to noises louder than 85 dB.
Construction sites are definitely loud, but people in the military are regularly exposed to noise that is far louder. This is definitely true in combat settings, where troops hear sounds like gunfire (150 dB), hand grenades (158 dBA), and artillery (180 dB). But military bases, whether at home or overseas, are not very quiet either. Indoor engine rooms are very loud and the deck of an aircraft carrier can be as loud as 130 – 160 dB. For pilots, sound levels are loud as well, with helicopters being well above 100 dB and jets and other planes also being well above 100 dB. Another concern: One study revealed that exposure to some forms of jet fuel appears to cause hearing impairment by disrupting auditory processing.
And as a 2015 study of hearing loss amongst military personnel aptly highlights, for the men and women who serve our country, it’s not a choice, it’s a duty. So that they can complete a mission or execute daily tasks, they have to cope with noise exposure. And although hearing protection is standard issue, lots of the sounds just described are so loud that even the best-performing hearing protection isn’t enough.
How Can Veterans Treat Hearing Loss?
Though hearing loss due to noise exposure is permanent, the impairment can be reduced with hearing aids. The most prevalent kind of hearing loss among veterans is a diminished ability to hear high-pitch sounds, but this type of hearing impairment can be corrected with specialized hearing aids. Tinnitus is often a symptom of another health problem and though it can’t be cured, there are also treatment solutions for it.
In serving our country, veterans have already made many sacrifices. They shouldn’t have to sacrifice their hearing too.