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Many of us already know that hearing loss tends to affect aging populations at higher rates than younger people. Yet, did you also know that veterans are more likely to have hearing loss? Experts have identified that this connection between military service and hearing loss probably has to do with exposure to very loud sounds during active duty, but exposure to loud machinery, transportation, and even industry could be part of the puzzle, as well. Indeed, among the reasons people go to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical centers, hearing loss and tinnitus, otherwise known as ringing in the ears, ranked number one and number two. Not only do veterans tend to go to VA medical centers for assistance with general hearing loss and tinnitus, but they also have higher rates of a condition known as Central Auditory Processing Disorder. This condition makes it difficult to understand speech, and it is thought to be related to exposure to an explosion, blast, or other very loud event.
These hearing concerns mean that one out of every five hearing aids purchased in the United States is done by the VA system. This remarkable economic cost is not the only way to consider the expense of hearing loss among veterans. Anxiety and depression occur at much higher rates for veterans, making the emotional cost overwhelming, as well. With such high rates of hearing loss and tinnitus among veterans and associated high costs, what can be done to stem the tide?
Hearing Protection during Military Service
The good news is that hearing loss does not need to be inevitable for veterans. Several different forms of hearing protection are available for people in active duty and in other forms of military service. The first basic form of protection is a traditional set of earplugs. These devices are effective to lower the general decibel level of sound but they also tend to make verbal instructions and low-level combat sounds too quiet to hear. For this reason, military equipment suppliers have designed remarkable new level-dependent earplugs for use in combat settings. These devices do not simply lower the entire range of sound. Instead they lower very high frequency or sudden blasts of sound called impulse noise while keeping the ability to hear quiet instructions of other sounds intact. These devices can be easily inserted and removed as it becomes necessary, making them an essential piece of tactical military equipment to protect our veterans after service.
Other forms of military-grade hearing protection are designed to protect from very loud blasts, such as explosions. These noise reducing earmuffs are useful for pilots and service members who are constantly exposed to very loud transportation sound. However, they also eliminate the sound of voices, making them only suited to some roles in the military network. Noise-attenuating helmets are also effective forms of hearing protection in some instances. These helmets muffle sound while also providing audio from radio connections. With voices funneled directly to the helmet, they can protect a wide range of hearing while also enabling verbal communication. Finally, noise suppressors on weapons are being used with greater frequency, protecting the hearing of those engaged in active combat.
Although these innovations in hearing protection exist, a tragic case came to light recently. The Minnesota-based company 3M knowingly manufactured and supplied hearing protection to military service members that was not functional. The company has currently agreed to pay $9.1 million in damages to settle the case against them. The military wanted to make it known that companies knowingly supplying faulty equipment would not go unnoticed or unpunished for their misdeeds.
With new protection available, military service members, leaders, and VA medical personnel are optimistic that the future can demonstrate lower levels of hearing loss among our veterans. Proper use of hearing protection is key, not only for military service personnel and veterans but for anyone exposed to very loud sounds over extended periods of time. Technological innovations have made it possible to communicate freely while also wearing hearing protection, but service members must wear these devices properly in order to reap the benefits. As technology advances further to protect our veterans’ hearing, it will only be as effective as it is put into use.