As we get older, our hearing tends to get a little less clear. It is a natural part of the aging process.

Some people are more affected than others, but the onset of presbycusis—to give it its medical name—can be slowed if we take sensible measures to limit the amount of loud noise that we are exposed to. There are other risk factors—for example smoking, family history, diabetes and certain other conditions and some medicines—but by far and away the most common and most easily manageable factor relates to the amount of noise we are routinely exposed to.

A delicate mechanism

Our hearing is activated by a collection of tiny hairs in our inner ear or cochlea. These hairs, which are no more than structural protein filaments, project out into the fluid of the inner ear and are sensitive to the sound frequencies that surround us, and relay those signals to the brain via nerve impulses.

These hairs are extremely fragile and any damage done to them is permanent and cannot be repaired. The latest medical information says that it is only by avoiding damage to this delicate mechanism that we can best hope to preserve and prolong our hearing over time.

Routinely avoiding noisy environments is the easiest way to safeguard hearing acuity. Anything over 80 decibels (Db)—about the level of a mechanical lawnmower—can potentially cause hearing damage, if exposure is allowed to go on unchecked (normal conversation is usually in the range 60-65 Db).

The obvious remedy to reducing this risk is wearing ear defenders. These heavy duty devices (which resemble ear muffs) go around the ear and offer considerably more protection than simple ear plugs, which are capable of reducing noise exposure by 15 to 35 Db.

There are environments where it is easy to be unaware of just how much noise we are experiencing. Nowhere is this truer than in the car, where the gradual build-up of engine and traffic noise can tempt us to ramp up the volume of the car stereo. Needless to say, this can very quickly reach a level we should be trying to avoid.

Noise at work

Noise in the workplace is now a highly publicized matter, but it is still worth seriously paying attention to how loud your workplace is. As with the car, it is easy to be lulled into a false sense of security.

There are a number of apps available for smartphone and iPad that will measure the volume of noise. These include SoundMeter+ and Play it Down. These easy to use apps will not only make it possible for you to assess precisely what the levels of noise are in your environment. At the same time, by using them, you will automatically be attuning yourself to what is an easily overlooked aspect of our environments, especially in urban areas.

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One simple way to protect yourself is to listen to the radio or TV using headphones. By muffling all extraneous sound the headphones will allow you to listen at a quieter volume and hence reduce the impact on your inner ear.

It is also recommended to try to rest the ears after any particularly loud exposure in order to limit any potential damage.

Practical steps and other useful advice are available, but the key watchword is to take your hearing and the level and amount of noise you are routinely exposed to with the utmost seriousness.

Julia Carter is a freelance writer and hearing specialist. Julia wears a hearing aid herself and also campaigns for deafness awareness in her spare time. She is currently working towards a Ph.D. in hearing and speech sciences.