Q&A with Natalie Gibbs
Occupation: Audiologist, Hearing Solutions Warner Robins ENT Associates
Q: How many people in the U.S. have hearing loss — who are they?
A: I’ll put it this way: I deal mostly with geriatric patients — adult and geriatric — because they’re the largest group. In America, over half those over 55 have hearing loss needing treatment by an audiologist, and among those over 70, it’s two thirds. I see kids, of course, but reflecting the need I mostly see geriatric adults.
Q: What does it look like among children?
A: The prevalence of hearing loss is less, about one to six per thousand. Hearing problems are a leading birth defect with about two to three children out of a thousand born with a detectable hearing loss.
Q: So you’re geared toward older patients?
A: I trained across the spectrum and have masters and a doctorate degrees in audiology, but I certainly trained and love treating my older patients. And I love my veterans and their spouses. I grew up a spoiled brat not knowing what our veterans did and that without them we’d all have nothing. I studied across the street from a veterans facility and worked there, and it really opened my eyes. And it really prepared me to serve here in this area, too.
Q: What’s the leading cause of hearing loss?
A: Essentially, there are two big ones. Presbycusis is one. It’s hearing loss due to aging. It mainly affects high frequency hearing, which affects the clarity, making it harder hearing or understanding speech. Most patients come saying I can hear, I just can’t hear clearly.
Q: And the second?
A: Noise induced hearing loss. Being exposed to loud noise. It comes from volume and time exposed to it.
Q: At what level is hearing damaged?
A: Eighty-five decibels is the terrible number. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has regulations for sound levels relative to time exposed. Hearing protection is critical at that level.
Q: So what’s an 85 decibel noise?
A: People are surprised, but something as common as a vacuum cleaner can be up to 85 decibels, and lawn mowers are typically rated around 90 decibels. I run a vacuum at home but not that much. If I ran a powerful vacuum for long periods at say, a hotel, I would definitely wear hearing protecting. Power tools can easily be in that range and even some sewing machines.
Q: And length of time matters?
A: Even levels under 85 decibels that are constant can be an issue. OSHA regulations have mandates for hearing protection and for the time you can work exposed at constant levels. At 85 decibels with hearing protection, it’s eight hours. By 90 decibels, it’s half that. At 94 decibels, it’s just one hour.
Q: What are examples of some common levels?
A: A jet taking off is rated at 140 decibels and instant hearing loss can happen at that level. Exposure over time is harmful, but I’ve had people come in with hearing loss from just one gun blast.
Q: What are firearms rated?
A: Every firearm pretty much makes noise over 140 decibels. A smaller .22-caliber rifle is around 140 decibels while bigger bore rifles and pistols are 175 decibels and more.
Q: Other examples?
A: On the low end, a watch ticking is 20 decibels. Normal conversation is probably 55 to 65 decibels. A bulldozer sitting idling is right around 85 decibels and thunder is up around 120. We think of industrial levels, but you need to think about at home, too. Pumping up your personal listening device can easily get above 100 decibels. But chainsaws and leaf blowers get loud, too. It’s easy to grab one of those and use it without thinking and use for longer than you think. Hearing protection is critical even then. Rock concerts have been known to get up to 120 decibels.
Q: Have there been increases in hearing loss in the population through the years with the advent of Walkmans and iPods and louder music?
A: Definitely. That’s even with better safeguards and hearing protection. You’d think those developments would decrease it, but we see increase through workplace and recreational exposure to loud noise.
Q: As far as causes, is the natural aging loss the main cause or noise exposure?
A: Both. The factors are so closely tied, you can’t just tease out one from the other.
Q: What steps can people take to protect from hearing loss?
A: Follow the rules, follow OSHA regulations at work and use good sense at home. Wear hearing protection. I can’t say it enough. If in doubt, use it. If you think you have hearing loss, get it checked — the sooner the better. Catching it earlier is important. Even if you suspect nothing, by age 55 I definitely recommend getting a test. It provides a good baseline for the future.
Q: Are there remedies?
A: Even for severe loss, yes. It starts with an audiologist doing a hearing test and seeing where the breakdown is. There are remedies at every level. It may be just wax buildup or fluid in the middle ear. It may be permanent damage that requires a hearing aid. There’s a world of solutions to improve hearing. Even patients with deafness can find solutions through things like a Cochlear implant.
Q: Your best advice to people about their hearing?
A: Wear hearing protection and don’t wait to treat a problem. Get a hearing test and treat problems early. And if you have hearing aids wear them. Wear then every day.
Answers may have been edited for length and clarity.