The men and women who serve our country in uniform too often cope with debilitating mental, physical, and emotional difficulties after their service is finished. While healthcare for veterans is a continuing discussion, relatively little attention has been paid to the most common disabilities diagnosed in veterans: Hearing loss and tinnitus.
Veterans are 30% more likely than civilians to deal with severe hearing impairment, even when occupation and age are taken into account. Hearing loss, related to military service, has been documented at least back to World War 2, but it’s much more prevalent in veterans who have served more recently. Recent veterans, who are also, on average, among the youngest former service members, are four times more likely than non-veterans to endure severe hearing impairment.
Why Are Service Personnel at Greater Risk For Hearing Impairment?
The answer is simple: Exposure to noise. Some vocations are obviously noisier than others. For example, a librarian will be working in a fairly quiet setting. The sound level that they would normally be exposed to would be from 30dB (a whisper) to 60 dB (normal conversation).
At the other end of the sonic spectrum, for civilians anyway, let’s say you’re a construction worker, and you’re on a job site that’s in the city. Sounds you’d constantly hear (city traffic, around 85 dB) or periodically (an ambulance siren’s around 120 dB) are at harmful levels, and that’s just background noise. Research has revealed that construction equipment noise, anything from power tools to heavy loaders, exposes laborers to noises louder than 85 dB.
Construction sites are definitely loud, but people in the military are constantly exposed to noise that is far louder. This is definitely true in combat settings, where troops hear noises like gunfire (150 dB), hand grenades (158 dBA), and artillery (180 dB). And it’s not quiet at military bases either. Indoor engine rooms are very loud and the deck of an aircraft carrier can be as loud as 130 – 160 dB. For pilots, noise levels are loud also, with helicopters being well above 100 dB and jets and other planes also being well over 100 dB. Another worry: Certain jet fuels, according to one study, interrupt the auditory process triggering hearing impairment.
Our service men and women don’t have the option of opting out, as a 2015 study plainly demonstrates. So that they can complete a mission or perform everyday activities, they have to bear with noise exposure. And even though hearing protection is standard issue, lots of the sounds just described are so loud that even the best-performing hearing protection isn’t enough.
How Can Veterans Deal With Hearing Loss?
Though hearing loss due to noise exposure is irreversible, the impairment can be reduced with hearing aids. The most common type of hearing loss amongst veterans is a decreased ability to hear high-frequency sounds, but this type of hearing impairment can be corrected with specialized hearing aids. Tinnitus can’t be cured, but as it’s frequently a symptom of another issue, treatment solutions are also available.
Veterans have already made many sacrifices in serving our country. They shouldn’t have to sacrifice their hearing too.