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Hearing Loss Safety: If You Can't Hear It, How Do You Avoid It?

You may not realize just how much you rely on hearing to keep yourself out of danger’s way. You hear the car often before you see it, giving you a few seconds notice that a car is coming around the curve as you prepare to pull out of your driveway.

At work, if you can’t hear the forklift moving down the aisle, you’re a walking target. It only beeps when it’s backing up, remember? A warning from a co-worker or your spouse, a shout-out from a neighbor or the floor manager, if you can’t hear these warnings you put yourself and others at a higher risk at home, at work and out and about in the community.

Hearing Loss, Smoke Alarms and Other Warning Sounds

heairng loss and fire safety
Can you hear your smoke detector?

A study published in the February, 2009 edition of the journal Ear and Hearing, indicated that some smoke alarms were more effective at waking people with serious hearing loss than other alarms. Study authors tested the effectiveness of a variety of smoke detectors and determined that those devices with low frequency alarms afforded the most protection.

The study looked at other warning devices such as strobe lights and bed shakers to provide emergency warnings when danger is near – or at least a possibility. And the results of this first-of-its-kind study are surprising to many.

First, the study revealed that strobe lights were ineffective in waking hearing impaired sleepers. Kind of surprising, especially for those light sleepers who wake at the crack of dawn but study results clearly point out the strobes don’t work.

Bed and pillow shakers do work for people with severe or total hearing loss. But, for those with mild to moderate hearing loss, the most effective deterrent to the dangers of smoke and fire is a smoke detector with a low-frequency (520-Hz square wave auditory signal, for those interested in the specs) alarm sound.

The study concluded that this type of smoke detector worked most effectively among a variety of test groups including hearing impaired, children, older adults, young adults and even alcohol impaired test subjects – all reacted faster and more consistently when exposed to a smoke alarm with a low-frequency alarm sound.

Don’t wait until a fire happens to you. If you experience hearing loss, mild or severe, it is recommended to consider purchasing a low-frequency smoke detector. Feel secure at night when you are without your hearing aids.

In an email interview with Healthy Hearing, study author Dr. Dorothy Bruck, School of Psychology, Victoria University, Australia, stated: "If you have moderate to severe hearing loss and you are relying on your hallway smoke alarm to wake you up you are living with a sense of false security. Our findings suggest that less than half of such hard of hearing people will awake to a hallway normal high pitched alarm. However, hard of hearing people were seven times more likely to wake up to a low frequency tone with a complex frequency profile (a 520 Hz square wave) than the normal alarm signal."

Bruck went onto state: "The standard smoke alarm that is widely sold has a pure tone with a frequency of around 3000 to 4000 Hz. Such high frequencies are the most vulnerable to hearing loss associated with advancing age."

According to Dr. Bruck,  there are two products on the market in the US that produce the 520 Hz square wave alarm. One is by LifeTone Technologies and the other is the Loudenlow by the Darrow Company.

Hearing Loss and Danger

But here’s the thing, not all dangers come with alarms. Not all dangers are loud. In fact, some may be soft – the murmuring cry of an infant, a distant tornado siren or a neighbor’s call for help.

We’ve been relying on our sense of hearing for tens of thousands of years to warn us of potential danger, while sleeping and awake. While some long-past relative was out hunting, hearing was acute – turned up to its highest level – to detect that night’s dinner or maybe the danger of a saber-toothed tiger crouching in the underbrush.

Things are no different today, except saber-toothed tigers no longer present any danger. Still, crossing the street is dangerous. Driving is dangerous. Working in a construction zone or manufacturing floor is dangerous.

Let’s call these soft dangers – dangers that surround you but you might not hear. Hey, you’re backing out of a parking space and you don’t hear the soft hum or honk of the horn from the car backing right toward your taillight! Oh, it might not be any more than a fender bender, but it could be much worse – even if you only experience mild hearing loss.

If you can’t hear loud or soft dangers, you put yourself, your family, co-workers, neighbors and others at higher risk. Don’t wear hearing aids?

Time for a Hearing Evaluation

Oh, you know it. You’ve noticed hearing loss. The TV is a little louder. The car radio blares. And you automatically position yourself in front of the speaker to get visual cues from lip reading – something you do without thinking.

Ask yourself this: when you’re watching a movie at home and the actor is speaking with his back to the camera, do you suddenly find yourself lost? What’d he say? And who’s that guy? You know the feeling. That’s why you turn up the TV – but even that doesn’t help when trying to follow a complicated story line in this week’s blockbuster.

Okay, you’ve been putting off a hearing evaluation because, well, hearing aids are expensive and they make you look old and it’s a hassle and you’re constantly fiddling with the darned things and…well, you probably have your own list of excuses for putting off a visit to a hearing professional’s office.

But now you understand that there’s more than just vanity at stake, here. There’s more than the expense. There’s more than adapting to a new self-image.

The ability to hear is essential to your safety and the safety of others around you - your family and friends. The ones closest to you need protection. And the ability to hear dangers – both soft and loud – is essential in providing that protection for yourself and others.

So forget the vanity thing. Besides, today’s hearing aids are low-profile – invisible if you want to go that way. Or, you can also opt for candy-apple red hearing aids to show your pride in your independence.

Keep yourself and others safe from soft and loud dangers at home, at work and around town. Visit a hearing professional to determine if you are a hearing aid candidate. If the answer is yes, treat your hearing loss to start hearing the world around you and protect yourself and others from safety conerns.

For all persons with hearing loss (hearing aids or no hearing aids) consider replacing all of your smoke detectors with low-frequency smoke detectors. You will sleep peacefully knowing you are protected.

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