U.S. Air Force hearing loss noise study


Soldiers returning from combat can face a host of mental, physical and emotional challenges. The nature of their job exposes them to more risk than most non-military people, and they are sometimes left to contend with traumatic brain injury, musculoskeletal injuries or the effects of chemical exposure for the rest of their lives.

military helicopter in clear blue sky
Hearing loss is the most common health

issue affecting military men and women.

What if, instead of reacting to soldiers’ health problems after they occur, steps could be taken to prevent the health problems from happening in the first place?  The Air Force Surgeon General has decided to take a new approach to keeping Air Force members healthy through a program called the Total Exposure Health Initiative, which focuses on prevention not only at work, but in other areas of their lives as well.

“Folks returning from combat have a constellation of health concerns, including physical issues, psychological issues and psychosocial issues concerning things like work and family,” said Dr. Stephen Hunt, national director of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Post Deployment Integrative Care Initiative.

Hearing loss and the military 

The Total Exposure Health Initiative will start off by looking at hearing loss, which, according to the Veterans Administration, is the most common health problem affecting veterans. By 2014, over 933,000 veterans were receiving disability for hearing loss. The numbers skyrocket when tinnitus (ringing in the ears) is factored in, to the tune of almost 1.3 million receiving disability compensation. Most hearing loss experienced by military women and men is caused by excessive noise exposure from explosives, gunfire, aircraft and engine noise. Thankfully, while increasingly common, noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is largely preventable. 

After recruiting participants, the two-week study will monitor all of the forms of noise they are exposed to in the course of a 24-hour day, not just an eight-hour workday. The reason for this approach is that the effects of noise are cumulative, and a person might fall within safe noise level exposure limits during the course of their workday, but the remaining 16 hours could push him over a safe threshold. Everything from the activities people enjoy in their off hours to their home life to traffic noise will be factored in to their daily noise exposure levels.

“I think a lot of us would be amazed if we actually knew what was too noisy,” said Col. Kirk Phillips, consultant to the Air Force Surgeon General for Bioenvironmental Engineering. He points out that even lower noise levels, once factored in with higher levels, aren’t as harmless as we think. “Noise sources that are lower in value, once we’ve had some of those higher level exposures, can be concerns,” he added.

“I think a lot of us would be amazed if we actually knew what was too noisy.” – Col. Kirk Phillips

After their total exposure to noise is measured, the next step will be to provide participants with various forms of hearing protection. Participants will be given earmuffs, standard earplugs and custom fit hearing protection to determine which they like best and what benefits each form of hearing protection can offer when it comes to protecting their hearing.

“We’re going to do something with it,” said Dr. Richard Hartman, the chief health strategist for Total Exposure Health. “We’re not just collecting noise information and saying you’re above or below; we’re using very advanced analytics to produce a course of action. This is the reason we chose noise as it’s one we’re all exposed to no matter what your age is, no matter what your profession is.”

Next steps

The long-term goal of the study is to find out what is working in terms of hearing loss prevention and what is not, find new approaches to preventing hearing loss and tinnitus and to open the door to further research. New discoveries in the realm of hearing loss prevention will not only help soldiers, but civilians as well.

The new study is important because you don’t have to be a member of the military to be exposed to harmful noise levels while at work or just in the course of your normal day. According to the NIDCD, 15 percent of Americans between the age of 20 and 69, 26 million people, have experienced high frequency hearing loss as a result of excess noise exposure either at work or as a result of leisure activities. With their latest initiative, the Air Force is putting forth a new model of preventative healthcare that could change many lives for the better.

The best news about noise-induced hearing loss, regardless of your profession or lifestyle, is that it’s preventable. If you already suspect you may have hearing loss, visit a hearing care professional near you who can perform a baseline test and advise you of your options. 


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