It's another workday, and a colleague approaches you about a recent assignment. Despite focusing all your attention on what they're saying, it still sounds like they're mumbling, and you’re forced to ask them to speak a little louder and repeat what they said. The incessant background noise of phones ringing and coworkers chatting doesn't help.
Unfortunately, this is a reality for many working Americans, especially among the aging population. Hearing loss is two times more common than diabetes or cancer, is rated as the third most common chronic physical condition in the United States, and is one of the most common work-related conditions (1, 2). Hearing loss and working in a loud space often negatively affect work productivity and can have psychological and social consequences.
Hearing loss is a growing problem in the United States
Hearing damage is often cumulative, making age the most accurate predictor of hearing loss among adults. Age-related hearing loss, also called presbycusis, gradually occurs with age, with most people starting to lose their hearing in their 60s (3). According to the CDC, nearly half of people older than 60 have hearing loss, which is predicted to rise as people live longer. By 2040, it's expected that 82 million people in the United States will have hearing loss (2).
According to the CDC, the economic cost to society of age-related hearing loss is estimated to be $297,000 over the lifetime of every affected person (2).
Background noise is a major barrier for the hearing impaired
The most common communication problem for hearing-impaired people in the workplace and other environments is background noise (5). Hearing loss not only affects in-office work but can also impact employment, with those with hearing loss more likely to have higher unemployment rates, a lower income, lower work productivity, and have higher healthcare costs compared to adults with normal hearing (2).
Restaurants are also a frequent culprit of loud background noise, making dining out a stressful experience for the hard of hearing. According to The Hearing Journal, due to the lack of sound-absorbing decor in many restaurants, the background noise, including the clinking of cutlery on plates and conversations of other diners, reverberates throughout the space, adding to the noise (7). A Consumer Report survey found excessive noise to be a top complaint among patrons, with the average noise level among restaurants across the country sitting around 80 dB (8).
Another area of concern is hospitals and healthcare settings. In these settings, it is even more vital that an aging population be able to clearly hear what doctors and medical personnel are saying. Miscommunications due to noisy, echoing environments can directly impact a person's quality of care and their health.
Noisy work environments are putting employees at risk
Unfortunately, workspaces often neglect acoustics in their design, making it difficult for employees to concentrate, affecting productivity. Working in a loud office also puts employees at risk of hearing loss, with the CDC stating that 19 percent of noise-exposed workers have a hearing impairment (1). According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, among adults aged 20-69 who worked five or more years in a loud environment, 18 percent have hearing loss in both ears, compared to only 5.5 percent of adults with hearing loss who had no occupational noise exposure (3).
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends that noise exposure in the workplace not exceed 85 dB — the level of busy city traffic — over an eight-hour day (2), while The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends noise exposure levels no higher than 70dB over 24 hours and 85 dB over a one-hour period to avoid hearing impairment (2). When noise reaches 85 dB the sound is considered loud and potentially harmful (1).
Prevention is essential because most work-related hearing loss is permanent and can significantly affect a person's quality of life, often leading to social isolation, cognitive decline, and heart problems like high blood pressure and heart disease (1).
Hearing loss is associated with other health consequences
Losing access to the world of sound affects more than just a person's ability to communicate with others. Studies have found that older adults with hearing loss are at a greater risk of developing dementia and experience a more significant decline in cognitive abilities than those with normal hearing (4).
"Although many adults are resilient, acquired hearing difficulties are nevertheless responsible for a high level of general psychological distress for a significant number of people due in part to isolation, loneliness, and withdrawal," a study on the impact of hearing loss states (5), adding that the frustration and embarrassment about not understanding what someone is saying can contribute to these feelings.
However, a recent analysis found that using hearing restorative devices resulted in a 19 percent decrease in the hazards of long-term cognitive decline for those with hearing loss and a three percent improvement in cognitive tests (6). This positive outcome has been found in other studies, including a 1998 study that followed the psychological change experienced by 37 deafened adults using cochlear implants over 54 months (5). The evidence showed a significant improvement in loneliness, social anxiety, paranoia, social introversion, and distress (5).
Despite the evidence, and although it's estimated 28.8 million U.S. adults could benefit from hearing aids, fewer than one in three over the age of 70 use them (3).
Signs of hearing loss may be subtle
Hearing loss can range from mild, where a person struggles to hear certain high-pitch sounds, to total hearing loss (4). Some people may not even realize they have a hearing problem. You should consult a doctor if you have any of the following symptoms (4):
Have trouble understanding what people are saying over the phone
Find it hard to follow conversations when two or more people are talking
Often ask people to repeat what they’re saying
Need to turn up the TV volume so loud that others complain
Have a problem understanding speech because of background noise
Think that others seem to mumble
Can't understand what's being said when children and people with higher-pitched voices speak to you
Tinnitus is a common symptom of age-related hearing loss
A ringing in the ear or a soft clicking, buzzing, or hissing sound is experienced by around 10 percent of people — over 25 million adults — in the United States. These individuals are experiencing tinnitus, one of the most common health conditions in the country.
Hearing loss is the most common cause of tinnitus and results from damage to the auditory system. Approximately five million people suffer from chronic tinnitus, and two million find it debilitating, impairing their ability to hear, work, and sleep (9).
Age-related hearing loss partly explains why tinnitus is more typical in older adults, with one in five elderly adults experiencing the symptom (9). It commonly starts around age 60 and tends to affect both ears and the sensory loss of high-frequency sounds (9).
According to the Hearing Health Foundation, more than a third of people with tinnitus have reported that the condition negatively affected their work prospects, with one of the most significant difficulties being concentration. Forty-one percent of survey respondents noted their tinnitus affecting their concentration mildly, 33 percent moderately, and 20 percent said it affected their concentration severely (9). The Foundation explains that the constant ringing of tinnitus reduces concentration as the individual frequently tries to push the sound aside to focus on other things (9).
Creating an environment where all can thrive
Creating environments in healthcare settings, the workplace, and social gathering spaces that are mindful of people's hearing levels is becoming increasingly important. Acoustic materials, like FSorb's noise-absorbent panels designed to minimize loud noises, are a highly effective solution. Our panels reduce the distance noise and conversations travel, creating an environment where people of all hearing levels can thrive. They are safe, durable, come in many different colors and sizes, and can even be customized to match any space. We would be privileged to help you create the perfect solution for your space.
At FSorb, we are motivated by improving human health and do so by creating eco-friendly acoustic products. Our mission is to help designers build beautiful spaces that reduce excess ambient noise while calming the human nervous system. With over 25 years in the acoustic business we stand behind FSorb as a durable, environmentally friendly, and low-cost product. If you want an acoustic solution that is safe to human health at an affordable price, then we are your resource.
Occupational Hearing Loss Surveillance. (November 11, 2021). Centre for Disease Control. Retrieved February 12, 2023 from https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/ohl/worker.html
Public Health and Scientific Information. (December 11, 2018). Centre for Disease Control. Retrieved February 12, 2023 from https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/hearing_loss/public_health_scientific_info.html
Quick Statistics About Hearing. (March 25, 2021). National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Retrieved February 12, 2023 from https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/statistics/quick-statistics-hearing
Hearing Loss: A Common Problem for Older Adults. (January 19, 2023). National Institute on Aging. Retrieved February 12, 2023 from https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/hearing-loss-common-problem-older-adults
National Research Council (US) Committee on Disability Determination for Individuals with Hearing Impairments; Dobie RA, Van Hemel S, editors. Hearing Loss: Determining Eligibility for Social Security Benefits. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2004. 6, Impact of Hearing Loss on Daily Life and the Workplace. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207836/
Yeo BSY, Song HJJMD, Toh EMS, Ng LS, Ho CSH, Ho R, Merchant RA, Tan BKJ, Loh WS. Association of Hearing Aids and Cochlear Implants With Cognitive Decline and Dementia: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Neurol. 2022 Dec 5:e224427. doi: 10.1001/jamaneurol.2022.4427. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 36469314; PMCID: PMC9856596.
Eberts, Shari. Dining Out for People with Hearing Loss. The Hearing Journal 73(1):p 16, January 2020. | DOI: 10.1097/01.HJ.0000651576.13355.c5
Are Noisy Restaurants Harmful to Our Hearing Health? (February 21, 2020). Hearing Wellness Solutions. Retrieved February 12, 2023 from https://hearlifewell.com/are-noisy-restaurants-harmful-to-our-hearing-health/
Can You Reduce Tinnitus And Its Negative Impacts? (January 10, 2023). FSorb News. Retrieved February 12, 2023 from https://www.f-sorb.com/post/can-you-reduce-tinnitus-and-its-negative-impacts