5 Tips for Safeguarding Ear Health

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Hearing problems don’t just happen to the very old. Boomers, as well as their parents, need to pay attention to ear health. Working with your health care provider to prevent hearing loss is important to lower the risk of problems down the road. Considering the importance of ear maintenance, I felt we should seek some medical advice about what we should and should not do to have a better chance of maintaining our hearing.

Leah Korkis, BSN, RN, who is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in nursing as a Clinical Nurse Specialist in both adult and geriatric care, generously agreed to educate us. Leah currently works at UCLA Health where she cares for adults and geriatric patients.

Leah tells me that a little effort can go a long way to keeping our ears in good shape. Below are her five top tips:

  1. Keep it Down in There! Loud noises can harm hearing. The golden rule to preventing noise induced hearing loss is the 60/60 Rule. For example, listen to your music at no more than 60% of the maximum volume for no more than 60 minutes a day. By avoiding loud sounds for prolonged periods of time, it will allow your eardrums to rest.
  2. Say What? If you find yourself having to ask someone to say something more than once, ask him or her to speak lower instead of louder. With time, higher sound frequencies don’t vibrate our eardrum as easily as lower ones. Asking someone to speak in a lower pitch—especially women or children—may make it easier to continue a conversation that isn’t shared with the entire room.
  3. Wax on, Wax off. Wax protects the deeper areas of our ears from trapped dirt particles, dust and bacteria. For regular maintenance, use a washcloth or tissue to clean in and around the outer part of the ear. Never use cotton swabs like Q-tips or sharp pointed objects, which may injure the ear canal or eardrum. In some people, excess earwax can build up and cause discomfort, itching and partial hearing loss and may lead to infection. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, ask your Nurse Practitioner (NP) or doctor to take a peek with an otoscope. It’ll only take a few minutes for them to clear out the wax, leaving you squeaky clean and symptom free.
  4. Did Someone Call a Doctor? Ear infections can cause many problems within the confined space of our ears. If left untreated, bacteria can spread and rupture the eardrum or erode the bones of the middle ear leading to deafness. If you notice symptoms of itching, earache, redness, yellow discharge, or burning, see your doctor or NP immediately. This is especially urgent if you already have a history of hearing impairment.
  5. Up, Up and Away! During air travel, bring something like chewing gum or hard candy to promote swallowing. This will help ease the pressure that may build up during takeoff and landing. You may also try gentle ballooning of the cheeks with a closed nose for a few seconds.

Leah makes her tips fun, but she is completely serious when it comes to health. Hearing is necessary for our wellbeing. Katherine Bouton, a former New York Times editor and author of “Shouting Won’t Help” and “Living Better with Hearing Loss,” weighs in on this important issue.

"We hear with our brain,” Katherine told me. “If certain areas of the brain are not being used for speech comprehension, they will be taken over by other functions. Retraining the brain to hear again once you do get hearing aids can be hard work.”

“Untreated hearing loss has serious consequences,” she continued. “It leads to isolation and depression, which contribute to cognitive decline. It increases the risk of falls in the elderly, and there is a strong statistical link to dementia.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), falls are the leading cause of both fatal and nonfatal injuries for people over 65. Falls can cause moderate to severe injuries, such as hip fractures and head trauma, and can increase the risk of early death. Falling can often be a result of balance issues that may stem from problems with the inner ear.

Basic care routines are important to our overall health, especially as we age. Work with your primary care physician or an audiologist to make certain that you are doing what you need to do to protect your hearing.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

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