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Say What!? Country Radio Seminar Tackles Hearing Loss Epidemic

Hearing Loss Hearing Aid 2017
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After two years of his wife complaining that the TV was too loud, Country Radio Broadcasters (CRB) executive director Bill Mayne finally broke down and took a hearing test. When the doctor fitted him with some new hearing aids, it was an emotional experience.

"I had tears running down my cheeks," says Mayne. "For the first time in decades, I could actually hear the sound of the room in total quiet, and I hadn't heard that in a long time."

Mayne now wears hearing aids full time -- though they're unnoticeable until he mentions them -- and he has been key in a health campaign for 2017's Country Radio Seminar (CRS), Feb. 22-24 at the Omni Nashville Hotel. Registrants have the opportunity to undergo a professional hearing test -- valued at $250-$450, says Mayne -- and that ought to be a major benefit for radio programmers and music executives who make their living with their ears.

Musicians are, in fact, 3.6 times more likely than the average adult to contract noise-induced hearing loss, according to a study by the Leibniz Institute for Prevention Research and Epidemiology. But other music pros can suffer significant hearing loss, too, even if they're not standing next to the speakers onstage. Listening to studio playbacks at excessive volumes or cranking the cans during an air shift are on-the-job activities that impair the hearing of people in music-related fields. And it's a sure bet that everyone in music has left a concert or two -- or 100 -- with their ears ringing.

"Hearing damage like that is additive, so your hearing will gradually decrease," says Starkey Hearing research audiologist Justin Burwinkel, who will help administer the CRS tests. "What's misleading about that is your hearing will recover a little bit, but it will never be what it used to be after that. So immediately after an event like that, your ears will seem stuffy, but you'll wake up the next morning and things will seem OK again. You do that over and over and over again, there will be those gradual declines."

That is, of course, what happened to Mayne. He played guitar for several years in a metal band and lost about 20 percent of the hearing in his left ear before the age of 21. He worked in radio and in record-label promotion, and through the years, his hearing went south. The deterioration was incremental, and because of that, he -- like most people -- didn't feel the effects as they took place.

"The changes are so slow that every day you are adjusting to your new normal," says Burwinkel. "It's not really until people seek help and get some of that sound back into their life that they're like, ‘Wow, I was missing out on so much.' "

Unfortunately, societal stigmas make people reticent to take preventative steps, such as using earplugs or moving away from a prime seat at the front of the stage. It could take years before the hearing loss becomes noticeable, and the average person waits seven more years from that moment to get help, according to Nashville ENT Audiology director of audiology Nancy Morgan, who will also be on hand for the CRS testing.

"There's a lot of emotional things going on there," she says. "People still associate hearing loss with aging, even though that's not [always] the case, and that's a big hurdle for many people to get over emotionally."

Hearing is, in fact, under assault in modern culture. A typical conversation registers at 60 decibels (dB), beneath the 85-dB level where damage begins to occur. A subway clatters at 90 dB, according to WebMD.com, while shouting hits 95 dB, chainsaws run near 110 dB and live events -- such as hockey games or rock concerts -- typically reach 125 dB. Personal audio devices have placed 1 billion young people on the planet at risk for significant hearing reduction, says Burwinkel.

"Because of the increase in recreational use of things like iPods, we're seeing that prevalence increase," notes Morgan. "Historically, we really thought about the threat of noise-induced hearing loss being to factory workers and military, and then we did start to see the influence of it in the music industry."

Part of the issue in music is directly related to advances in technology. In earlier years, audio equipment began to distort as it got louder. With improvements in equipment, clarity has been enhanced, thus making the listener more willing to tolerate the louder sounds.

"With the way our inner ear is shaped, it's the high frequencies that are most susceptible to noise-induced hearing loss," says Morgan. "And now we've got technology that can output practically the whole range of human hearing, where that just wasn't the case in years past."

The CRS hearing tests are the latest installment in CRB's ongoing health campaigns. At previous seminars, participants could get free heart tests from the Cleveland Heart Lab or a breathing assessment from the COPD Foundation.

2017's participants can get their results on site and receive referrals or consultations, if needed. Nonregistrants also have an option: Starkey offers an app, SoundCheck, which allows the user to not only get approximate results for their hearing, but also to test noise levels as they move through the day. 

Early prevention is the best cure for hearing loss. But Mayne is also a huge advocate for the tests -- and for the hearing aids, if they're ultimately necessary.

"The science is such that they're not visible, plus you have technological advantages with Bluetooth," he says. "I call my phone with them, I can stream music directly into my ear, and I can let my wife go to sleep at night while I stay up and watch movies with her not hearing a sound.

"There really is nothing to be fearful of here. There's something to be excited about, because if you find out you do have loss, you can have your hearing back -- and back in a way that is amazing."