Most dogs love to drive with their heads hanging out the window, the wind whipping the saliva out of their open mouths. Likewise, many humans believe that every dog should have his day and that driving a convertible is one of life’s drool inducing pleasures. But the open-air fun and glamour that convertibles evoke may come at a cost beyond the price-tag, because new research shows that convertible riders have an elevated risk of losing their hearing.
The study, funded by Worcestershire Royal Hospital in the UK, found that the typical noise generated by a moving convertible registers considerably higher than the threshold usually associated with hearing loss. Dr. Philip Michael, the study director, said, “If you are exposed for long periods above 85 decibels [of sound], you have the potential for hearing loss. The maximum noise [of cars tested] was at 70 miles per hour and that was 89 decibels. It has the potential for causing long-term hearing loss.”
The researchers tried out a variety of vehicles just to make sure the noise level stayed loud from one car to the next. In the name of medicine, they drove a Toyota MR2, a Mazda Miata MX5, the Audi A4 Cabriolet, a Morgan plus 4 Roadster, a Porsche 997 Carrera, an Aston Martin V-8 Vantage, and a Bentley convertible — all at 50, 60, and 70 miles per hour.
Dr. Michael found that paying a lot for a car doesn’t mean it becomes exempt from wind resistance. The expensive cars were as noisy as the cheapest once the tops went down. Also, going slower made only a minimal difference in noise level when driving on the highway. Oh, and cranking up your car’s stereo to override the wind noise doesn’t actually help.
But in the world of ear-popping noise, all is relative. While normal conversation registers at about 60 decibels, you could drive with the top down to a Rolling Stones concert and back again and get a whole lot less noise exposure than if you actually went into the concert, where the noise-level would be at about 115 decibels.
And that brings up a simultaneous study of 5,000 people in the US, which found that men have three times the risk of hearing loss related to noise compared to women. While driving a convertible may up the ante for potential deafness, so do many other activities — and apparently, men indulge in more of those activities. For instance, operating heavy equipment or machinery like chain saws or lawnmowers without ear protection can damage hearing. Men are more likely to shoot guns, to drive motorcycles, and to listen to head-banging music — in other words, to have jobs or hobbies that require noise exposure.
It’s something that most people don’t think about in the course of normal life — that turning the stereo up too high can degrade hearing over time, even if it’s Mozart on the sound waves. In fact, a significant percentage of adults do suffer from noise-induced hearing loss, including 13 percent of the subjects in the sample. According to Dr. Douglas Mattox, professor of otolaryngology at Emory University School of Medicine, “Noise-induced hearing loss is the number one preventable kind of hearing loss. We’re all born with 20,000 inner hair cells on each side of the head, and those are a non-renewable resource, and they never come back every time one is lost.” How can you lessen your chances of damaging your hearing while still having fun? First, wear earplugs or noise-canceling headphones when operating noisy machinery, playing the drums, taking off in the airplane, and when driving your convertible (assuming it’s legal to do so in your state). Next, lower your frequency of exposure. As Allison Grimes, head of the audiology department at the UCLA Medical Center says, “…if you drive eight hours a day, seven days a week you have a much greater concern than if you drive two hours on a Sunday afternoon.” If you have a convertible, roll up the windows to slash the noise level, and use a wind guard. Also, eat your vegetables and fruits: another simultaneous study found that men over the age of 60 can decrease their risk of hearing loss by a full 20 percent just by consuming plenty of folates, which are found in leafy green vegetables, fruits, and beans.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention: men can also possibly preserve their hearing by remaining single. The data shows that married men suffer far more noise-induced hearing loss than single men, a fact that puzzles the researchers. Some media sources have been having fun with this fact, blaming nagging wives for the phenomenon. A more politically correct analysis might theorize that with a wife’s second income, men can afford to buy more of the toys and tools they crave — the power saws, CDs, and motorbikes. If so, perhaps they can begin diverting some of the excess funds to a folate supplement and a pair of good noise-cancelling headphones.