Medical and scientific news

A new insight into hearing

This image from “Comparative Anatomy” (1936) has no known copyright restrictions.

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Stephen Mraz, MachineDesign, writes about a new findings by MIT researchers that is providing insight into hearing, specifically how a very thin layer in the cochlea helps humans pick out one voice among many in a crowd. Mraz notes that the new findings could lead to better hearing aids.

I’m not sure I understand the research, and it probably has to be confirmed by other studies, but the inability to understand speech in a noisy environment is a problem for many older adults. One thing I do know for sure, though, is that loud noise damages the auditory system.

So while I am happy to hear that research is continuing to uncover how human hearing works and how noise damages it, I wish every article and report on the latest research would add a statement telling readers that noise-induced hearing loss is 100% preventable.

And remember: If it sounds too loud, it IS too loud!

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Swedish researchers discover 3 types of nerve fibers in the ear

This image from Gray’s Anatomy is in the public domain.

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This report in Science Alert describes how researchers in Sweden figured out that there are three types of Type I nerve fibers in the ear. They did this using sophisticated DNA analysis techniques.

I often say that all research in a broad range of fields adds to our knowledge about noise and hearing and health, but quickly add that no new research, and no more research, is needed to know that noise causes hearing loss and non-auditory health effects including hypertension, heart disease, stroke, and death.

The scientific evidence is strong enough that there can be no rational doubt about this. And anyone who still has doubts about this can join the folks at the Heartland Institute who still don’t think the scientific evidence about cigarette smoking causing lung cancer is strong enough to be conclusive. Or the Flat Earth Society.

For the rest of us, guided by science, let’s aim to protect our ears and preserve our hearing.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Just in time for New Year’s Eve

The Food and Drug Administration approves a drug that calms dogs afraid of fireworks and other loud noises. This is good news for pet owners who have tried–and failed–to deal with anxious pups.

Better news, of course, would be if every local government took the lead of Collecchio, Italy and mandated the use of quiet fireworks, which provide the display people love without the loud noise that torments man’s best friend. Gotta be cheaper than getting on the waiting list for Ford’s (yes the car company) kennel with noise-canceling technology.

Hearing loss associated with depression

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

I’m not sure this new report on the association between hearing loss and depression in older Hispanic people in JAMA Otolaryngology adds much to our knowledge of how hearing loss affects people. It has been known for some years that hearing loss is associated with depression in older people. The report extends the research to Hispanic people in several large cities, but as best as I can tell, that’s the only new information. The authors claim that this study’s importance is that it measured hearing loss rather than relying on reports of hearing difficulties, but some earlier studies did that, too.

In older people it’s hard to tell if the hearing loss was caused by noise or not, because over time changes indicating hearing loss from noise lose specificity as hearing loss becomes worse. But my analysis of the literature suggests that what is commonly called age-related hearing loss, as in the JAMA Otolaryngology article, is really noise-induced hearing loss, which is entirely preventable.

Now that the connection between hearing loss and depression is clear, doesn’t it make sense for government and the medical community to commit resources to educate the public about the dangers of noise-induced hearing loss? A host of health concerns will diminish or disappear if we focus on stopping noise-induced hearing loss.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Is noise pollution making you fat?

This image is in the public domain in the U.S.

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

The discussion that stress may be linked to obesity has gone on for many years but an internet search of research linking stress to obesity will reveal that stress can indeed increase weight. One could now ask the question whether continuous noise intrusions from railways, roads, and overhead aircraft could be associated with obesity. The answer to this question appears to be “yes” with regard to road noise, “less so” with rail noise and “no” for aircraft noise in the research paper cited in this Environment International article.

While the authors of the paper cited above believe that additional research needs to be conducted, including effects of aircraft noise, to strengthen the data supporting the relationship between noise and obesity, they stress that with obesity being a major public issue worldwide, the existing data suggest that noise needs to be seriously considered as a contributing factor. They also point out that: “obesity could represent one pathway through which transportation noise impacts cardiovascular disease,” recognizing that studies have linked transportation noise to cardiovascular ailments.

Dr. Arline Bronzaft is a researcher, writer, and consultant on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health. She is co-author of “Why Noise Matters,” author of “Listen to the Raindrops” (children’s book illustrated by Steven Parton), and has written extensively about noise in books, encyclopedias, academic journals, and the popular press.  In addition, she is a Professor Emerita of the City University of New York and Board member of GrowNYC.

Newly identified gene plays critical role in noise-induced hearing loss

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This report about research done at the University of California-San Francisco describes identification of a new gene and its effects on proteins in the cochlea. The cochlea is the part of the ear where sound waves are transformed into electrical impulses which are transmitted to the brain and perceived as sound. The article notes that insights about the newly identified gene and the proteins it codes for may eventually lead to drugs to prevent hearing loss after noise exposure.

I have a much more practical suggestion that those concerned about their hearing can use today. Until that drug is available on the market–which will be years to decades to perhaps never, and who knows at what price–avoid noise-induced hearing loss by avoiding loud noise exposure. It’s simple, easy, and inexpensive. And I speak from experience–it’s what I do. I avoid loud noise, e.g., rock concerts, and if I can’t avoid loud noise, when flying in an airplane or using a power tool, for example, I wear noise-canceling headphones or insert earplugs.

Remember: if it sounds too loud, it IS too loud.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Protect your heart, protect your hearing?

Photo credit: speedoglyn1 licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This article in JAMA Otolaryngology reports a correlation between cardiovascular disease and hearing loss in patients over age 80. The correlation was more pronounced in men than in women.

A correlation between cardiovascular disease and hearing loss has been reported for some years. The blood supply to the inner ear can be affected by atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), caused by genetics, smoking, diabetes, dietary fat intake, and the passage of time. A compromised blood supply may damage the cochlea, and may make it less able to recover from noise damage.

The study is an exploratory one, with a small number of subjects, and correlation doesn’t mean causation. But if people lead a heart-healthy lifestyle, they may also be protecting their hearing.

Hearing loss is very common in older Americans, with half of those over 65 having hearing loss.

I still think the major cause of hearing loss is excessive noise exposure over a lifetime, but taking care of your heart can’t hurt.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

The use of sound in medicine

Photo credit: Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Sound has medical uses. Music therapy has been used for decades, as has diagnostic ultrasound, e.g., echocardiography, gallbladder, and kidney ultrasound, and therapeutic ultrasound has been used in physical therapy.

Now, this report from NPR discusses the use of focused sound waves to ablate damaged brain tissue, relieving a farmer of a trembling hand.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Noise kills

Photo credit: Pete G licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Most people, including most doctors, don’t know that noise causes both hearing damage–hearing loss, tinnitus and hyperacusis–as well as a whole host of non-auditory health problems, including hypertension, diabetes, obesity, heart attack, stroke, and death.

These non-auditory health effects are discussed in this article that reviews the current literature.

The European Union understands the dangers that noise exposure poses, and it is taking steps to protect the public via the Environmental Noise Directive.

If enough Americans make sure their elected representatives know that they are worried about how noise affects us, maybe the U.S. will become quieter and healthier, too.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Loud music listened to on headphones is causing hearing loss in children

Photo credit: Gordon licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

My main noise issue is restaurant noise, but I have learned about other noise issues, too. When I figured out that the oft-cited 85 decibel standard is an occupational noise exposure standard, and not a safe noise exposure standard for the public, I sent emails and letters to the audiologists quoted in media reports. When I realized that 85 decibels was used as a safe volume limit for headphones marketed for toddlers as young as 3 years, I called this to the attention of pediatricians, the Federal Trade Commission, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Centers for Disease Control. My efforts, sadly, have thus far been unsuccessful.

My worries were based on theoretical concerns. There was no way that loud noise without a time exposure limit could be safe for children. Now this report documents that the hearing loss I was worried about isn’t a theoretical concern any more. Namely, the news article writes about a study conducted by Erasmus Medical Centre in Holland, in which scientists “studied more than 5,000 children aged nine to 11-years-old over three years, found one in seven of the youngsters had suffered some hearing loss.”

The study is preliminary. The hearing tests were done as part of a study of normal child development in Rotterdam, but not specifically to determine whether personal music player use caused hearing loss. More than 5,000 children were enrolled in the study, but complete hearing tests were available for only about 3,000, and personal music player use was assessed by parental report. Despite these limitations, the study found that 14% of the children, now just under 11 years old, had some type of hearing impairment.

That said, one must ask what is causing this early onset hearing loss. The researchers believe the cause may be children’s use of headphones to listen to portable music players.

Maybe this will spur regulatory authorities into action. At the very least, parents and grandparents can take these headphones away from their little darlings, and give them instead the gift of continued good hearing.

The problem with headphones isn’t just hearing loss. As a parent and soon to be grandparent, I know that talking with children and listening to what they say–almost from the time they are born–is one of the most important ways to teach them words and language, to establish a relationship with them, and to educate them about the world. Giving the child a personal music player or video player and headphones can occupy the child for hours–it’s certainly easier than carrying books and reading them to the child, or giving the child a paper and crayons, or playing with dolls or trucks or Legos–and it allows the parent to watch or listen to his or her own cellphone or personal electronic device, but it probably isn’t the best thing for the child, either.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association board from 2015-2018.