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May 25, 2004

Lend me your ears

From: Xinhua, China - May 25, 2004

BEIJING, May 25 (Xinhuanet) -- We often take auditory pleasures like conversation and music for granted, but once hearing loss begins, it can never be repaired. Xu Wei reports on the modern-day nuisances that are destroying our hearing -- and how to keep that hearing sharp.

Chatting with friends. Relaxing with music. Mindlessly listening to the sound of nature. Each one is a blissful moment -- a moment that cannot be achieved without the ear.

''The ear is one of the human body's most complex, and at the same time, delicate systems,'' says Professor Chen Xueming, an otologist at Shanghai Ruijin Hospital. ''People take their ears for granted, but are often unaware of the importance of caring for this important organ.'' Statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO)show that around 250 million people around the globe are affected by moderate hearing loss.

In China, hearing loss affects more than 20 million -- larger than any other kind of disability in the country. ''Hearing can deteriorate for a variety of reasons, including injury, heredity, the effects of some chronic conditions and diseases like meningitis,'' says Professor Chen. ''Modern life is also a culprit: excessive exposure to loud noises is one major hazard for the auditory system.'' The damage caused by noise is called sensorineural hearing loss or nerve deafness. According to the experts, our ear has three main parts: the outer, middle, and inner ear. The outer ear opens into the ear canal. The eardrum separates the ear canal from the middle ear. Small bones in the middle ear help transfer sound to the inner ear, which contains the auditory nerve leading to the brain. When functioning normally, the ear effectively transforms sound waves into electrical impulses and the brain can thus recognize the electrical impulses as specific sounds. ''When noise is too loud, it begins to destroy the nerve endings in the inner ear,'' Chen adds.

''As the number of nerve endings decreases, so does your hearing. Remarkably, there is no way to restore life to dead nerve endings. The damage is permanent.'' The intensity of sound is measured in decibels.

The scale runs from the faintest sound the human ear can detect, labeled at zero decibels, to more than 180 decibel. Many experts agree that continual exposure to more than 85 decibels is dangerous. ''It's easy to find some decibel signs at major crossroads to control the environmental noises,'' says Huang Lin, a white-collar worker in her 20s. ''But the warning is unnecessary. When the traffic gets that noisy, I just want to escape as quickly as possible.'' Huang is not alone. Nobody likes a noisy environment. For some people, loud noises cause anxiety and irritability, which can also lead to an increase in pulse rate and blood pressure, or an increase in stomach acid. Yet the human being is wonderfully adaptive, and those who work in clamorous environments get used to noise. Cherry Liu, a hairstylist in her 30s, is surrounded by the buzz of hair driers the minute she steps into the hair salon.

She has to speak loudly to both her assistant and customers. ''I have worked here for around six years,'' Liu smiles. ''A noisy environment is so familiar to me and has become part of my daily life. I have been immune to it.'' Immune, says Professor Chen, is the wrong word.

''If you think you have grown used to a loud noise, you're not immune -- it has probably already damaged your ears,'' he notes. ''Hearing loss often occurs gradually and may not be noticed at first.'' In addition to the high-intensity sound, experts have seen cases of hearing deterioration caused by excessive and improper use of earphones. Compared with giant acoustics and studio monitors, earphones look small and harmless. But what matters is not their size, but how much the sound makes your eardrums vibrate. In fact, most earphones can produce a louder sound in the eardrum than the powerful studio monitors.

The long-time, habitual use of earphones, especially when the volume is high, can easily produce noise exposures well above the accepted safety limits. ''With earphones inserted into the ear canal, I switch on music to lift my mood almost anywhere,'' says Serela Zhang, a university student. ''In my eyes, it's a stylish habit for the young generation who are in demand of constant emotional stimulation by hot music such as jazz or rock 'n' roll.''

''As sound produced by earphones is so close to your eardrum, the point is to use earphones carefully and in moderation,'' Professor Chen adds. ''Taking frequent breaks while using earphones is a wise approach.'' Additionally, taking ototoxic drugs (drugs that damage the hearing, such as some antibiotics) is also a threat that can impair one's hearing. Boosting the immune system through exercise and a healthy diet, which decreases the risk of virus infections and the necessity of taking antibiotics is an effective method to preserve hearing, say health professionals. Those who suspect mild hearing loss should begin by making an appointment with your audiologist for a diagnostic hearing evaluation and, if appropriate, a hearing aid. There are many types of hearing aids available. The selection depends not only on the hearing loss, but also on your occupation, lifestyle and physical limitations.

''After the emergence of digital technology, the sophistication of modern hearing aids can solve the limitations of traditional ones such as eliminating noises and magnifying soft sounds flexibly,'' says Steen Teisen, general manager of Widex Hearing Aid (Shanghai) Co Ltd. Experts also note that the ears are the unique organ to one's body. The wisest move is to never neglect its importance in your life.

''There is almost no treatment, no medicine, no surgery or no even a hearing aid, that can completely restore your hearing once it is damaged,'' Professor Chen says. ''People should take care of their auditory systems, beginning from now.'' Tips For Ear Care 1. Do not poke or probe the internal ear canal in case of infection and harm to the eardrum. 2. Make sure your diet includes the minimum elements for good ear health, such as zinc and calcium. 3. Be cautious about taking ototoxic drugs such as the aminoglycoside antibiotics that are harmful to the ear. 4. Keep away from noises and have your ears rest, while listening to the music. 5. You can also massage your ears. It's an effective way to stimulate the blood circulation of the inner ear.

(Shanghai Daily news)
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