The wine-and-martini holiday season of Christmas/New Year’s/University Break is over. Now, at the start of the traditional detox month of January, I have time to think about the relationship between alcohol and hearing loss – not just mine but everybody’s.
Spoiler alert – I like wine. It tastes better than beer and it’s a prettier color than coke or pepsi. But I don’t drink much; on the human alcohol consumption scale, with a teetotaler being 0 and a chronic drinker being 10, I’m about a 2. In fact, I’m what the Aussies call a ‘two-pot screamer’, a person who doesn’t drink much, or if they do, it doesn’t take much alcohol to become pissy-whacky, as my mother referred to it. For a few years, I was actually a one-pot screamer, because I seldom made it to a second glass before switching to water.
But I worked hard to build up my tolerance and now I’m enjoying wine again as a two-to-three-pot screamer. I love how wine looks in a beautifully shaped glass and I love the sound of glasses clinking in a celebratory cheers – if my friends remember to clink loudly enough for this hard of hearing person. And I really love perusing bottles in the wine store, because some the world’s greatest art is found on wine labels.
But back to the insights about drinking and hearing communication:
1. It’s hard to speechread an inebriated person, no matter how well you understand them in their natural, sober state.
2. On the other hand, inebriated people tend to talk loudly, giving their slurred or nonsensical words a much-needed volume boost.
3. If the person with hearing loss is also tipsy, neither of the above really matters.
4. At a New Year’s Eve bonfire, wine that’s been chilling in a snowbank will shatter your teeth with its coldness and the glass will freeze to your mittens. Hot chocolate, with a liberal shot of ‘a little something’, is recommended for -20 degree midnight madness. (There’s no hearing loss connection here, but I thought you should know this.)
5. When you decide to go downstairs and check on your 18-year-old’s end-of-holidays-party for 50 of his closest friends – well, just don’t, OK? A hard of hearing parent will understand nothing beyond the friendly, drunken “Hey-AY, MizHannan-howya-doon?!
6. Chronic, life-long alcohol consumption can shrink your brain and lead to hearing loss, due to impact on central auditory pathways.
The first five statements are based on personal experience. The final one is scientific research from Dr. Elisabeth Stephanie Smith, University of Ulm, in her 2004 study published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. It’s an extremely sobering thought that hopefully doesn’t apply to one or two-pot screamers.
Cocktail deafness, however, can strike us all. I’ve already commented on the tendency of drinkers at a party or a pub to start talking more loudly as they drink. But it’s not just high spirits (bad pun intended) and loud music that cause the volume increase – it’s also due to the decrease in their hearing!
In a 2007 study on alcohol-induced hearing loss, the British researcher Tahwinder Upile studied 30 lucky participants whose job was to drink shot after shot of alcohol while having their hearing tested a few times over a few frequencies. The results showed that alcohol specifically blunts lower frequencies, especially at the 1000-Hz level, the most crucial frequency for speech discrimination. Apparently older test subjects were more likely than younger participants to experience greater hearing loss the more they consumed. The good news is that the hearing loss was temporary, with hearing returning when the hangover departed.
The even better news is that small amounts of alcohol are apparently not considered harmful to hearing – although individual drinkers will choose their own definition of ‘small amounts’. In addition, as reported in a previous blog, drinking red wine may actually protect against noise-induced hearing loss because of a plant compound found in red grapes and red wine. (A suggestion to non-drinkers: you may want to eat a bowl of red grapes every day for breakfast.)
I can only speak for myself here, but as people living with hearing loss, why subject ourselves to the possibility of more damage? I don’t care how pretty those wine bottles are, I’m going to wear my two-pot screamer badge with pride and follow the advice of my grandfather, a Presbyterian minister – all things in moderation. And since I don’t converse well in noisy environments, it’s no hardship to avoid them as much as possible in order to prevent possible tinnitus due to noise damage.
So, to celebrate this first blog of 2014 (and to lament our son’s return to university), the Hearing Husband and I will enjoy a quiet glass of rosé, maybe two, by the fire this evening.