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Reducing the problems caused by hearing loss is one focus of a government program designed to help all Americans improve their overall health.

The Healthy People 2010 program led by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has created a guide for individuals, groups and entire communities to set up programs and activities that help people learn the necessary steps for good health and disease prevention. As part of the program, they have set up Healthy Hearing 2010 to promote healthy hearing habits and identify objectives for reducing problems caused by hearing loss.

Mike Sloniker, an audiologist at Siouxland Hearing Healthcare, PLC, said two of the objectives are to reduce the number of children, teenagers and adults suffering from noise-induced hearing loss.

Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) happens when sensitive parts of the inner ear are damaged from being exposed to harmful sounds. This damage is caused by sounds that are too loud, or by loud sounds that are too close or that are heard over a long period of time.

"The main way to reduce hearing loss is prevention, knowing what sounds can be damaging to hearing. The rule of thumb is, if you're carrying on a conversation with someone and there is an external noise that is so loud you have to raise your voice above it, it's too loud. You should wear earplugs or earmuffs," Sloniker said.

About 30 million Americans are exposed to dangerous levels of noise every day and 10 million Americans already have hearing loss from noise, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD).

Sounds that can cause damage to your hearing include a chainsaw (110 decibels, or dB), ambulance siren (120 dB), 12-gauge shotgun (165 dB), hair dryer or gas-powered lawnmower (90 dB), and a rock concert or firecracker (140 dB).

The degree of hearing loss that occurs depends on the level and duration of the sound, he said. Regular exposure to 110 dB for more than one minute risks permanent hearing loss. More than 15 minutes of unprotected exposure to 100 dB also is damaging. Prolonged exposure to any noise above 85 dB can cause gradual hearing loss.

Sloniker said people who use iPods or similar devices that are listened to with ear buds should make sure the sound is at comfortable levels as opposed to loud levels, especially if they are going to listen to these devices for an extended period of time. Otherwise, they risk some degree of hearing loss.

NIHL is 100 percent preventable, but once it happens, the hearing loss is permanent. The NIDCD recommends increasing the use of ear protection devices and equipment, such as earplugs or earmuffs, as they will protect your hearing when you are exposed to loud noise.

Another objective from Healthy Hearing 2010 is to increase the number of people who schedule periodic hearing examinations.

"A hearing evaluation helps to determine the degree or configuration of hearing loss you have," he said.

Some forms of hearing loss appear as a child grows and develops. For this reason, not only should children have their hearing screened at birth, but they should be tested and diagnosed any time a hearing loss is suspected. This is also true for adults. Children also should have their hearing tested before they enter school.

Once the degree or configuration of hearing loss has been determined from an evaluation, the next step is to look at options to restore hearing.

The most common option for restoring hearing is a hearing aid, he said.

Siouxland Hearing Healthcare, PLC, offers the new Live line of hearing aids from ReSound. This line can help compensate for a larger degree of hearing loss without the whistling.

"Feedback management advances have been fantastic with these hearing aids," he said. "Every year, there is something new."

For individuals who have a hearing loss that's not significant enough to require a hearing aid, Sloniker recommends assisted listening devices, such as amplified phones or infrared systems, or FM systems for lectures.

A new device called iCom by Phonak offers wirelessly connects hearing instruments to Bluetooth devices, mobile phones, television sets, computers and MP3 players.

"I have a couple of patients with an iCom. They love it," he said.

Following are more objectives from the NIDCD to reduce problems caused by hearing loss:

• Increase the number of newborns who get their first hearing test before they're one month old. Children found to have a hearing loss should get additional testing before they're 3 months old, and should be enrolled in rehabilitative services by the time they're 6 months old.

Sloniker said Iowa is one of the states that has a program in place for testing newborns while they are still in the hospital.

• Decrease the number of ear infections in children. Ear infections are the No. 1 reason for all doctor and emergency room visits by infants and children. The cost of ear infections to the American public is enormous - roughly $5 billion a year for medical expenses and lost wages.

• Increase the number of deaf or hard-of-hearing people who use rehabilitation services and adaptive devices, such as hearing aids or cochlear implants. In today's world, people must be able to communicate with others as well as understand how to use technology. Technological devices are available now that can help children and adults who are deaf or hard-of-hearing be successful in society and the workplace.

• Increase the number of people who are referred by their doctor for a hearing evaluation and, if needed, treatment. These referrals depend on a number of factors, including the type of hearing loss, the age at which hearing loss occurs, the services available in a community, and a family's preferences.

For more information about healthy hearing, call Mike Sloniker of Siouxland Hearing Healthcare at (712) 258-3332. Siouxland Hearing Healthcare is located at 2916 Hamilton Blvd., Lower C, Suite 103.

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