New Study Finds People Living in Rural Areas at Greater Risk of Hearing Loss

A new study has identified those who live in rural America at higher risk for hearing loss. Why? Probably because many in these areas work in industries that consistently expose them to loud noises, like agriculture, making prevention the best course of action.

A study recently published in the journal Lancet Regional Health-Americas, is one of the first to estimate hearing loss at the state and county levels across the U.S., highlighting areas of the nation where hearing loss is more common.

Not surprisingly, the study found that individuals living in more rural parts of the country were at higher risk for hearing loss. West Virginia had the highest prevalence rate of hearing loss at about 18%, but Missouri and Kansas both had rates of hearing loss in the 13% range, and in rural counties, those rates reached as high as 20% of the population.

The study’s author stated that’s likely because individuals in more rural states and counties may work in careers where their hearing is at risk from exposure to loud equipment and machinery, like agriculture, or they may take part in recreational activities that put them at risk, like hunting.

But how loud can the typical tractor be? According to the National Ag Safety Database, the decibel level inside an acoustically-insulated tractor cab performing typical field operations is 85 decibels. This is the sound level the Occupational Safety Health Administration (OSHA) considers “safe.” At this sound level, there is no threat of hearing damage for most individuals, regardless of the length of time in the cab.

But, if there is no cab on the tractor and the exhaust system has deteriorated, this same tractor may produce 100 decibels. These 15 additional decibels limit safe operation to two hours before the threat of hearing damage becomes an issue. Older tractors without cabs frequently produce sound levels that allow less than eight hours of exposure before noise-induced hearing loss becomes a problem.

When added to the risks for hearing loss related to aging, this can put individuals who live in rural areas and who are employed in occupations such as agriculture at increased risk for hearing loss.

And while hearing loss used to be considered a relatively benign condition, it now has been connected to an increased risk for cognitive decline and dementia, falling, social isolation and depression.

Preventing Hearing Loss

Because hearing loss is permanent, the best treatment is prevention. In many cases, simple over-the-counter earplugs or earmuffs that can be purchased at drugstores, hardware stores, or sports stores may prevent hearing damage.

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association recommends the following to prevent hearing loss:

  • Place earplugs into the ear canal so that they totally block the canal. Earplugs come in different shapes and sizes, and can also be custom made by taking an impression of the ear. Earplugs can reduce noise by 15 to 30 decibels (dB) depending on how they are made and fit.
  • Use earmuffs that fit completely over both ears. They must fit tightly so that sound is blocked from entering the ears. Like earplugs, earmuffs can reduce noise by 15 to 30 dB depending on
    how they are made and fit.
  • Use earplugs and earmuffs together to achieve even greater sound reduction. Use of earplugs and earmuffs is recommended when noise exposure is particularly high.
  • Consider custom earplugs and musicians’ plugs if you are frequently exposed to loud noises. If you are an avid hunter or a musician, be sure to talk with an audiologist about these hearing protection devices.
  • Do not listen to loud sounds for too long. If you don’t have hearing protection, move away from the loud sound and give your ears a break.
  • Look for noise ratings on power tools and equipment. Purchase quieter products, if possible.

Can My Ears Get Used to Noise?

Even if you’ve spent your life on the farm, don’t be fooled into thinking your ears are “tough” or that you have the ability to tune noise out. Noise-induced hearing loss is usually gradual and painless but, unfortunately, permanent. Once damaged, the hearing nerve and its sensory nerve cells cannot be repaired.

Associated Audiologists specializes in preventing hearing loss and offers many types of custom hearing protection, as well as custom ear impressions.

If you work in a field where you are constantly exposed to loud machinery, or even if you’re just concerned about how loud your lawn mower is, hearing protection is important to prevent permanent damage to your hearing.

Schedule an appointment with a doctoral-level audiologist for a personal consultation to discuss hearing protection.