If you spent your youth hanging out at rock concerts or mowing lawns without ear protection, chances are you’re paying for it now with a bit of age-related hearing loss.
Do visiting family members casually mention that your TV is blaring? Do you keep asking people to repeat themselves? You’re not alone. Roughly one-third of Americans over 60, and 40-50 percent of those 75 and older, have hearing loss. And plenty of younger adults have it as well, thanks to the rock-and-roll era. (Want objective input on your hearing? Schedule a hearing test with a licensed audiologist, recommended every couple of years from age 50 on. Check out the American Academy of Audiology at www.audiology.org to find a professional near you.)
Unfortunately, once you lose your hearing, you can’t get it back without help from hearing aids. Here’s how to protect what you have left:
1. Go for a hike in the woods. Not only will the silence help you focus better on sounds, but researchers find that physically fit people tend to have better hearing than those who aren’t in good shape. The reason? Aerobic exercise brings more oxygen into your system and improves blood flow to your ears.
2. Scoop up the guacamole at your next picnic. Guacamole is rich in magnesium. Studies find low levels of magnesium might make you more susceptible to noise-induced hearing loss.
3. Switch to decaf coffee and low-sodium soups. Caffeine appears to interfere with blood flow to the ear, while salt can lead to fluid retention, which can cause swelling in the functional organs of the ear. Plus, studies find that people with high blood pressure are more likely to have age-related hearing loss than those with normal pressures.
4. Quit smoking and stay away from other smokers. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the more exposure you receive to cigarette smoke, the more likely you are to experience age-related hearing loss.
5. Wear earplugs when you use the weed whacker or go to the shooting range. Although it’s only common sense that the deafening blast from a shotgun would affect your hearing, several studies back this up, finding that recreational firearm use can lead to marked high-frequency hearing loss. Other studies find significantly increased hearing loss in people who pursue woodworking as a hobby, or ride motorcycles, snowmobiles, and other off-road vehicles.
6. Sip a beer or glass of wine, but don’t overdo it. Believe it or not, moderate drinking can protect against age-related hearing loss. But excessive amounts may actually contribute to hearing loss.
7. Brush your teeth at least twice a day and floss after every meal. For some reason, there’s a connection between the number of teeth you’ve lost and your hearing, with researchers finding that the more teeth you still have in your mouth in old age, the better your hearing. No, dentures don’t count!
8. Serve a whole grain bread and split-pea soup for lunch. Whole grains and legumes are great sources of B vitamins, which studies find protect the neurons and blood vessels connected to the cochlea, the tiny bone found in your inner ear. Also, one study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that women with hearing problems had low blood levels of vitamin B12 and folate.
9. Drink a glass of skim milk every morning. The calcium and vitamin D found in milk are critical for keeping the bones in your ear, especially the cochlea, healthy. One study of 70 healthy women found that those with hearing loss had much lower spinal density (a measure of bone strength) and calcium intake than women with normal hearing.
10. Bake a sweet potato for dinner tonight. A wonderful source of vitamin A, it can also help your hearing because, according to animal studies, too little of this nutrient may increase the inner ear’s sensitivity to noise, thus potentially increasing the risk of noise-induced hearing loss.
11. Tape a tennis ball into the back of your partner’s PJs (use duct tape). It’s a great way to prevent snoring. Some people who really saw wood produce about as much noise as a chain saw, or so it seems. Over time, that noise can damage your ears. Another option: Send the snoring one to the couch.
12. Wear your seat belt and drive defensively, not aggressively. That way you’re less likely to get into an accident, which means your airbags are less likely to inflate. British researchers find that inflating airbags are loud enough to contribute to hearing loss. Additionally, head trauma is a major cause of hearing loss.
13. Get five servings of veggies a day. When researchers explored the connection between a variety of lifestyle factors and sudden deafness in 109 patients, comparing their deaf patients to those with normal hearing, they found those who ate the most fresh veggies had the lowest risk of sudden deafness.
14. Ask your doctor to clean out the wax in your ears. That’s often all that’s needed to improve your hearing. Just don’t try it yourself; sticking pointed objects into your ear canal is a no-no. If you want to de-wax at home, try wax-softening ear drops, sold at drugstores. Follow up with some forceful squirts of warm water from a bulb syringe (also sold in drugstores) to get the softened wax out.
15. Go to bed and rest when you have a cold. That gives your body the strength it needs to fight off the infection and reduces the risk that the cold will develop into something more serious, like an upper respiratory tract infection or ear infection, which can eventually affect your hearing.
16. Make earplugs a regular part of your wardrobe. Keep a pair in your purse, in your car, in the garage with the gardening tools, and by the lawn mower, suggests Suzanne Hasenstab, Ph.D., director of audiology and professor of otolaryngology at Virginia Commonwealth University
in Richmond. So if you’re cutting the grass, find yourself in the car next to someone blaring the bass, or realize too late that the live music is a little too live, you’re always prepared to protect your hearing.
17. Have a friend stand next to you while you’re plugged into your iPod (or Walkman or other musical device). If your friend can hear the sound through your earphones, says Dr. Hasenstab, you’ve got the volume turned up too loud.
18. Try a ginkgo biloba supplement. Some studies suggest the herb might not only help with ringing in the ears, or tinnitus, but may also help treat some types of hearing loss by improving blood flow to the ears. The herb takes weeks to work, so be patient.
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