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Disturbing Link: Hearing Loss and Dementia

Hearing loss is a significant problem among Laborers, who are often exposed to noise above 85 decibels on construction sites.

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LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan

“If you engage in noisy tasks or they go on around you at work, you should always use hearing protection,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “Your employer must make sure you’ve been trained on noise protection and that you have the PPE you need. Be sure to monitor your hearing with a check-up every year.”

Of all industries, construction has the second highest level of occupational hearing loss. Construction workers have a 56 percent risk of developing hearing loss, and most construction workers who have been on the job between 15 and 25 years have significantly damaged hearing.

Hearing and cognition

Adding to the direct problems of hearing loss, new research from The Johns Hopkins Center on Aging and Health indicates that hearing impaired adults between the ages of 75 and 84 are more likely to suffer from cognitive decline and memory loss – hallmarks of dementia – than those whose hearing has not been damaged.

Hopkins researchers employed the Modified Mini-Mental State Exam and the Digit Symbol Substitution Test dementia screens to gauge the cognitive abilities in 2,000 older adults. Although some cognitive decline is normal as people age, researchers found that annual rates of decline were, respective to each test, 41 percent and 32 percent greater in those who had suffered hearing loss as opposed to those whose hearing was fine.

Cognition refers to the brain’s ability to think, learn and remember. Reasoning, judgment, planning and organization are all affected by these mental skills. As with physical prowess, activity – in this instance, mental, – helps maintain cognition. This can help ward off or slow the progression for certain types of dementia.

Social interaction helps keep cognitive abilities strong. It is also something that is often severely affected by hearing loss, one of the most common conditions affecting older adults. When hearing-impaired individuals start having a hard time distinguishing what is being said to them, they often stop going out with friends and family or even talking on the phone or watching TV. This withdrawal from the comings and goings of life can speed cognitive decline. Hearing aids can help prevent this retreat, but most insurance plans, Medicare included, do not cover their thousand-dollar-plus cost. This can put them out of reach for many construction workers.

Construction site noise control

Noise tends to be intermittent at construction sites, which means most often workers rely more on hearing protection. However, because hearing protection can be uncomfortable, some workers are not consistent in wearing it. Hearing protection can also make it harder to communicate, adding to the reluctance to wear it, especially for workers already suffering with some hearing loss. The consequences of these decisions are made worse by the fact that hearing loss is gradual. By the time a Laborer becomes aware, the damage has been done. Although hearing aids can help, hearing that is lost is lost forever.

The LHSFNA’s Occupational Safety and Health Division can help contractors set up effective hearing loss prevention programs. Call the Division at 202-628-5465. The Fund publishes a variety of materials to help Laborers and employers manage noise exposure (see sidebar). These can be ordered through the online Publications Catalogue.

Protect Your Hearing with Help from the LHSFNA

The Laborers’ Guide to Hearing Loss Prevention in Construction, Noise and Your Job and Task-Based Hearing Loss Prevention are among assorted materials from the LHSFNA that can help in the prevention of occupational hearing loss. They can be ordered through the Fund’s Publications Catalogue.

The Fund also provides a list of noise resource links.

The OSHA pocket guide, Protecting Yourself from Noise in Construction, also provides useful information.

Possible financial assistance for purchasing hearing aids can be accessed at the Hearing Loss Association of America website.

Also, consider downloading a noise app for your Android or I-Phone.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]

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