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Hearing loss in football: Two former NFL stars share their stories

For players and fans alike, football stadiums can be detrimental to healthy hearing.

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The roar of a packed football stadium is part of what makes the sport so special. But there's a downside.

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For football fans, a thunderous stadium is part of the experience: There's no feeling quite like stomping your feet in unison with 100,000 people as hype music booms from loudspeakers, the venue trembling as your team rushes onto the field. 

Die-hard football lovers will tell you this experience is like no other. Ball games brim with emotion -- euphoria if your team is winning, dread if they're not -- and that emotion is expressed through yelling, clapping, stomping, chanting and singing. It's compounded by speakers blaring and announcers, well, announcing. 

Fun? Undoubtedly. Good for your ears? Not so much. 

Football stadiums are some of the loudest places the average person goes to, ringing in at decibel levels as high as 142.2 -- nearly as loud as a jet at take-off

Read more: These pro athletes are vegan -- here's why they switched and how you can benefit too

The dangers of noisy environments are often overshadowed by pleasure and cultural significance, an unfortunate fact because attending events like football games is often a driver behind hearing loss

I'm not here to rain on anyone's ball game, but take it from the pros: Terry Hanratty, former NFL quarterback and two-time Super Bowl winner with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Reed Doughty, former NFL safety with Washington, both of whom struggle with hearing loss today. 

Here, they share their stories. 

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Hearing loss in football

"I thought I had perfect hearing," Hanratty tells me. But as it turns out -- and evidenced by his wife's perpetual despair at the TV volume -- Hanratty did not. 

Hanratty and Doughty both suffer from sensorineural hearing loss, though different in nature. According to Hanratty's audiologist, Dr. Nancy Datino, his hearing loss "could be due to noise exposure over time … but also could also be a result of a combined degeneration from aging or perhaps nerve damage from the head trauma he experienced as a professional football player."

Doughty, on the other hand, was diagnosed with a hereditary type of sensorineural hearing loss at age 6. He has nerve degeneration in his ears, a progressive condition that will continue to worsen over time. 

Despite the differences in their conditions, Doughty and Hanratty have much in common: Both players eventually realized that their hearing loss was affecting their day-to-day lives, sought treatment and got hearing aids, and now spend a great deal of time educating the public on the dangers of loud environments and untreated hearing loss.

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Reed Doughty, former NFL safety, getting fitted for hearing aids.

Tiffany Napper/Signia

These may be two of the few former NFL athletes who actively promote hearing health awareness, but they are far from alone in their hearing loss -- according to a 2014 study by Loyola University, retired NFL players may be at risk of permanent hearing loss and tinnitus, partly due to head trauma sustained during play. (Head trauma from playing football can also lead to many other kinds of injuries, including chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.)

And with the average noise level of a sports stadium sitting at 100 decibels, it's possible to sustain enough damage to cause hearing loss in just 15 minutes.  

The defining moment

For both athletes, there was a defining moment that pushed them to finally seek treatment for hearing loss. 

Doughty recalls his rookie year with Washington in the team's meeting room, "My coach had his back to me at the whiteboard, explaining some new defenses we were putting in. I was a 4.0 student in college and I was supposed to be a smart guy, but I kept making mistakes on the field."

Doughty says he'd ask his coach, "When did you say that? I didn't hear anyone talk about [the new play]." Doughty's coach told him to get his hearing checked, so Doughty, years after being diagnosed with hearing loss, finally got hearing aids. 

Hanratty's moment came after his football career had already ended. He'd experienced a ringing in his ears for over a month, which he later found out was tinnitus, and hadn't really planned to do anything about it until the NFL Retired Players' Association invited him to get a comprehensive physical exam. 

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Terry Hanratty, former NFL athlete who played from 1969-1976, holding his cover issue of Time magazine.

Tiffany Napper/Signia

"It's a really cool thing; this is one of those executive physicals where you get to see about eight different doctors," Hanratty says. "Yet there was nothing in the physical about hearing." 

The players did get a form, however, on which they could write down anything they particularly wanted to get checked out. Hanratty took this opportunity to get his hearing checked and, as fate would have it, the doctor informed him that he needed hearing aids. 

Since then, Hanratty says, the NFL has added hearing checks as part of routine physicals. 

The ambiguity of loudness

Part of the problem, Signia audiologist Dr. Eric Branda tells CNET, is that people simply don't recognize the level of sound they subject themselves to. Most people don't think twice about sitting in a 100-decibel football stadium for four hours or jamming out at a 120-decibel rock concert.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, normal everyday conversation averages about 60 decibels. Football games and other loud events can easily reach nearly double that level of sound -- yet most attendees don't bother with any sort of ear protection. 

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The fun factor of football overshadows the danger of loud stadiums. No one is telling sports fans to stop attending games, but hearing professionals and athletes with hearing loss want to create awareness. 

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Additionally, many people don't really pay attention to the volume of music playing through their headphones or the volume on their TVs. Other unsuspecting but contributing scenarios that can damage your hearing include taking off in an airplane, going to the movie theater, doing yard work, standing in the subway as subway cars rush past and so much more. 

This isn't to say that you should walk around with earplugs in 24/7, Branda says, but you should be aware of your surroundings and take control when you can, and leave a loud environment or put in earplugs at a concert. 

Branda uses a helpful rule of thumb: "It's probably too loud if I have to shout in order to be heard." 

The stigma of hearing loss

"There's a stigma with hearing loss," Doughty says. "With glasses, you can wear them as part of your look and be stylish, but people don't feel the same way about hearing aids." 

Hearing loss is often discounted as a problem that's shrugged off with phrases such as "he's just old" or "she only hears what she wants to hear." Some people with hearing loss feel like they're made out to be dumb, so they hide the fact that they have trouble hearing. This is troublesome, because life can depend on the ability to hear -- think of sirens, alarms and warning shouts.

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The design of hearing aids has evolved in the last few years, from bulky designs that fit over your ear to smaller models that fit in your ear.

Angela Lang/CNET

Yet the stigma persists, and it discourages many people with hearing loss from getting hearing aids.

"When you talk about hearing aids, people tend to picture grandpa in his armchair in the corner with some sort of contraption on his head," says Hanratty. 

But that's no longer the case. Hearing aids are now discreet, effective and connected. You can find ones that look more or less like a good pair of earbuds. "There is truly no excuse not to get them if you need them, especially when you know how much they can help your relationships and your career," says Doughty.

Hanratty concurs: "I walk the streets of Manhattan and I see everyone with something hanging out of their ears. Earbuds, headphones, AirPods, whatever it is … Everyone's got something in their ears anyway."

Another way to overcome that stigma is to think of your hearing as an important part of your overall health, just like your heart rate or blood pressure.

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Discreet: the Signia Xperience Pure 312 hearing aid.

Tiffany Napper/Signia

Risks of untreated hearing loss

Hearing loss ultimately affects your ability to communicate, Branda explains. Hearing loss can cause relationship strains, social intimidation and anxiety. 

Hanratty puts it into perspective: "If you can't hear, you start to withdraw from society. You don't want to go to the movies because you can't hear it. You don't want to go to dinner because you can't hear anything. You don't want to invite people over because you can't hear them." 

"It gets frustrating for friends and families to repeat themselves all the time," Branda says, which can lead to resentment for either party or both, "and it really just creates a difficult situation."

Hearing loss can also affect performance at work, at school and in sports and recreational activities. Branda says that people with hearing loss might withdraw from society, allow responsibilities to pile up (such as unanswered phone calls and past-due appointments) and even exhibit characteristics of depression. 

In these ways, hearing loss is far more obvious to people around you than wearing hearing aids, Branda says. 

Perhaps the most frightening risk of untreated hearing loss is dementia. Adults with hearing loss are at a greater risk for dementia, Branda says, and research has found that the rate of cognitive decline in older adults is directly related to the level of hearing loss.

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What you can do

As with most health complications, prevention is key. Knowing how loud is too loud is half of the battle, but you can start by studying up on some common sounds and their decibel levels, as well as how long it's safe to listen to different decibels. The CDC has a handy guide to decibels and common sounds.

For example, the sound of the average hair dryer can reach 85 decibels -- a level that can cause hearing loss after two hours of exposure. But there's no need to worry about your hair dryer, Branda says, because hopefully you aren't blow-drying your hair for two hours each day. 

If you have an Apple Watch, the built-in Noise app can give you some guidance when you find yourself in noisy environments. It'll ping you when background noise rises above a certain threshold and give you tips, like perhaps you should consider moving farther away from the origin of the sound. 

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The Apple Watch's Noise app alerts you when the sound level around you is unsafe.

Sarah Mitroff/CNET

If you know you're going to be in a loud environment, consider wearing ear protection. The type can vary based on the particular environment and your preferences. Discreet ear plugs might be best for a football game, for example, while protective ear muffs are great for a shooting range and noise-canceling headphones work to drown out the rumble of an airplane. 

On top of everyday prevention, be sure to get your hearing checked regularly. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, healthy individuals aged 18-64 who don't have noticeable hearing loss or complications should get their hearing checked every three to five years.

Hanratty emphasizes that hearing check-ups are not part of a normal annual physical from your primary care doctor. "When you go get your physical, you get your ears checked, but not your hearing," Hanratty says. "You need to see a separate doctor -- an audiologist -- to make sure your hearing is normal and healthy."

If you're wondering if you need a hearing test, take this quiz by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

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If you know you'll be in a loud environment, such as on an airplane, protect your ears with noise-canceling headphones, ear muffs or ear plugs.

Sarah Tew/CNET

How you can help friends and family with hearing loss

If you know people who have difficulty hearing, you can help in a few ways. Try these tips from Branda: 

  • Speak clearly and help them read your lips.
  • Keep rooms bright so they can see you talking.
  • Talk slightly slower so they can process the sounds.
  • Give them a little bit of time to process your sentence before you move onto your next thought.
  • Have conversations in the same room, don't yell up the stairs or into different rooms.
  • Avoid the noisiest areas and minimize distractions.
  • If it seems like they're misunderstanding, try rephrasing; a new word might make all the difference.
  • Try not to bounce around different topics.

More on hearing loss: Ringing in the ears and 4 other hearing issues you should know about

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.