Are veterans at increased risk of hearing loss?
Yes, it appears that serving your country may put you at increased risk. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, nearly a million veterans currently receive disability checks due to profound hearing loss. And another 1.3 million receive compensation for disabling tinnitus (ringing of the ears).
This number doesn’t account for the many with mild/moderate hearing loss or those who’ve chosen not to receive benefits for one reason or another.
Let’s explore why servicemen and servicewomen are at increased risk and what’s being done about it.
How Military Service Increases Hearing Loss Risk
Many occupations can increase your risk of hearing loss. These include any profession where you’re exposed to loud sounds like mining, steelwork or even serving as a firefighter.
Those in the service definitely fall into this noisy job category with sometimes daily exposure to the sounds of:
- Jet engines
They may encounter these noises on a nearly daily basis on the:
- Training grounds
They must stay continually vigilant. That includes listening to the environment around them. But loud noise isn’t the only culprit.
How Auditory Processing Dysfunction Further Increases Risk
The connection between veterans and hearing loss is complex. While exposure to loud sound is obviously a huge factor, a 2014 study found a disturbing link between jet fuel and hearing loss.
With an increasing number of pilots developing hearing loss, researchers decided to investigate. They tested the effects of jet propulsion fuel-8 (JP-8), a kerosene-based fuel, on mice.
They exposed mice to jet fuel fumes in combination with sound well below what would normally damage the hearing. It had immediate and long-term effects. The mice had trouble processing sounds in the brain.
When a chemical causes hearing loss, scientists call this “ototoxicity.” Jet fuel isn’t the only toxic chemical a soldier may come in contact with and more research is needed to identify the risks.
How Stress Increases Risk
The third major component veterans face is stress. While stationed in a dangerous location, a service member must stay constantly alert. The stress-inducing hormone adrenaline courses through their veins, which:
- Raises blood pressure
- Prevents deep, restful sleep
- Constricts blood circulation, particularly to the ears
- Increases mental anxiety
Spending extended periods of time in the hyper-stressed state can lead to hearing loss and tinnitus. It may also cause anxiety and post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). Those last two often exacerbate tinnitus symptoms.
In addition, alcohol is an ototoxic chemical. If service people drink excessively to relieve stress, they’re adding to their hearing loss potential.
Scientists Looking for Solutions
The jet fuel study is just one example of how researchers are working to investigate hearing loss among service people. They want to know how we can do better as a country to protect these brave men and women from disabling hearing loss.
One such study is taking place right now in a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier off the coast of Japan. Dr. Karen Mumy is looking for ways to reduce noise exposure and save the hearing of the sailors stationed there.
Inside a lab, her team recreates the everyday sounds on the ship. They test how they affect the participants’ overall health, not only when it comes to hearing loss. She also wanted to better understand the mental toll that loud and unexpected sounds require.
Thus far, Dr. Mumy has found results similar to those in the fuel study findings. The loud noises not only cause “traditional” hearing loss. (That’s the hearing loss you get when the tiny auditory nerves in your ears get destroyed.) The sailors are also experiencing auditory processing dysfunction. With continual exposure to loud noise, their brains lose the ability to process sound.
What to Do About Military-Related Hearing Loss
First, if you are a Veteran, thank you for your service. We appreciate the sacrifices you have made for this country. Hearing loss probably wasn’t one of the sacrifices you considered when enlisting.
Know that the military and science are working together to prevent future soldiers from experiencing the same fate. But also know that if you’re a veteran with hearing loss, it’s likely permanent. It’s incurable. But that doesn’t mean that it’s untreatable.
Modern hearing aids do more than amplify sound. They can help your brain relearn to process sound and enhance how and what you hear. You may qualify for VA assistance in purchasing hearing aids. So if you have hearing loss, don’t wait to see a hearing professional.