STARTS WITH a cheerful attitude about shooting without ear protection. Even those hunters who would not think of shooting on a rifle or shotgun range without ear muffs or foam ear plugs routinely hunt without hearing protection. The impact, from days in a duck trap or weeks on your pointer, is cumulative and leads to what is sometimes called the “NRA salute,” the tendency of older hunters to put their hands behind their ears to listen better.
So the news that some hearing aids will soon be available over-the-counter in the United States, without a doctor’s prescription or costly fittings by an audiologist, should allow hunters to finally hear from their spouse, their boss, or a distant eater. Right?
Theoretically, yes. Practically, maybe not so much.
Listen Gobbles, save your brain
The ruling by the Federal Food and Drug Administration is likely to trigger a booming market for these less expensive devices for consumers with mild to moderate hearing impairments. But that doesn’t mean that older hunters, whose life behind the gun has impaired their hearing more profoundly than the general population, will be part of this race for hearing aids.
That is the first pessimistic news. The second bummer is that for younger hunters to take advantage of this opportunity for cheaper, more accessible hearing devices, they need to know what the risk is if they don’t. It’s not just the inability to hear a bugle on the next crest or the low-frequency wail of an approaching goose. It’s your mental health later in life, says Bill Dickinson, a trained audiologist.
Dickinson is the founder of TETRA Hearing, a “hearing enhancement” company catering specifically to hunters. He says the most underrated aspect of the FDA announcement is that saving his hearing can help him stave off dementia in old age.
Dickinson spent the rest of his career in the traditional hearing aid industry. But he’s also a lifelong hunter who wanted to bring his knowledge of hearing, both protecting and improving hearing, to the field. Hence TETRA, which offers online hearing tests and consultations, plus personalized products that can amplify certain sounds and cancel out the worst brain hits.
But he says that getting certain frequencies back is only part of the reason for protecting your ears. The main reason is that hearing loss is one of the main predictors of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
If that surprises you, consider what happens over the course of a hunter’s life, maybe even your own. Even though our community has become more vigilant about wearing hearing protection on the shooting range, most hunters do not protect their ears while hunting. Taking a single shot without an ear pro during deer season sounds harmless enough. But put a muzzle brake on your deer rifle and shoot a couple of deer a year for two decades, add some pigeon and squirrel caps early in the season and a turkey hunt or two in the spring, and your hearing is It’s going to take a while. a hit.
As hearing loss becomes more acute, hunters struggle to pick up conversations in crowded rooms, or focus their attention so they can hear a spouse or friends. This mental effort of simply listening and following simple conversations is exhausting.
But unless they get hearing aids, many of these hunters give up trying to stay involved in the world of sound. They begin to avoid places where listening comprehension will be problematic, staying away from social events and cacophonous places. That starts a slide into isolation. And, as neurologists insist, older people who don’t exercise their brains regularly begin to lose cognitive function. Eventually, that is clinically diagnosed as dementia or even Alzheimer’s.
An ounce of prevention
Dickinson insists that all of this is avoidable if hunters stop that cycle at its source: sonic damage from gunshots.
“Let’s stop spoiling our ears so early in life and throughout our lives,” says Dickinson. “One of the ways we mess up our hearing is by pulling the trigger. But for hunters, this is a problem. Hunters need to listen [before, during, and after those trigger pulls]so using sound blocking devices doesn’t work.”
That’s why he helped develop TETRA hearing protection: Dickinson wanted to give hunters a normal, natural hearing experience that can even amplify some of the important frequencies of their particular game (TETRA offers turkey, deer, elk, waterfowl and combined models) but fully protect your ears during the trigger pull. Or your friend next to you in the blind.
It’s never too late to address hearing loss, but Dickinson says hunters who protect their ears at a younger age have an advantage in this new FDA ruling. The best way to improve your hearing, says Dickinson, is to protect it before it degrades. But “hearing aids” like TETRA are dismissed as artifacts of aging. They are not great for younger consumers.
“We need to make clear the connection between hearing loss in your 30s, 40s and 50s, which makes you four to eight times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s and dementia in your 60s. We need to elevate hearing loss as a national health care concern. [instead of just an issue for geriatrics].”
So. What does that leave us? The first takeaway is that younger hunters can have both, an enhanced sound experience with amplification of certain critical frequencies and also noise cancellation when the hammer drops. The second is that instead of a $6,000 financial commitment (rarely covered by standard insurance), hunters can get hearing enhancements and protection for less than $1,000, before they lose their hearing. And the third is that “hearing aids” don’t have to carry a Social Security stigma.
“The hearing industry emphasizes what you can’t hear, how broken you are, how abnormal you are,” says Dickinson. I prefer to talk about what you are missing and what you have lost. That’s why we tune our devices to what you want to hear, whether it’s turkeys gobbling or ducks calling. It’s more of a novel approach. I’m not going to show you that you’re 62 percent broken, I’m going to show you what frequency you need to hear the sound that’s important to you. Whether it’s a gobble or thunder.”
Dickinson says that one way to get younger hunters to protect their hearing before they lose it is to lessen cultural stigmas around hearing loss.
“Even though we’re a hearing protection company, we’re trying to help you hear fun things in nature,” says Dickinson. “That requires changing our view of hearing devices. We now have 25-year-olds who wear designer eyeglass frames with clear plastic lenses because they think those glasses look sexy. I want to create a world where a little wire in your ear is sexy because it makes you listen more than anyone else.”
But forget sexy. One of the most insidious parts of hearing loss is that hunters forget what they used to hear because hearing loss is so gradual. Imagine being able to hear distant gobblers during turkey season, or the growl of a deer in the woods behind you, long after you thought you’d missed your chance.
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