The big news in my neck of the Northwoods is that Kiss is coming. On Labor Day weekend, the iconic rock band will perform in Forest County (population 9,381) at the Crandon International Off-Road Raceway. Many of the folks planning to Rock and Roll All Nite will travel there via the state highway that runs past my place. My husband and I will hear the bass line blaring from cars, trucks, and motorcycles going to and from Crandon.

Loud music carries a long way on a country road. Far better, in fact, than my husband’s voice carries from across the room if I have water running in the kitchen sink or something sizzling in a skillet. A lifetime of noise has caught up with both of us. 

Recently, we went to see the new Indiana Jones movie in the theater. The $5 matinee included a small box of popcorn. Unfortunately, it did not include the subtitles to which we’ve become accustomed at home. And we weren’t the only ones who missed them. Throughout the movie, I saw gray heads tilt together in what I recognize as motion associated with the phrase, “What did he say?”

We didn’t get this way from rock concerts and playing our car radios loud enough for the neighbors to hear as we drive by. Some of my hearing loss dates back to childhood ear infections. Because of that, I’ve probably underestimated the volume of the lawnmower, the string trimmer, and a shotgun. By the time I started to wear hearing protection, I already had trouble wherever there was background noise. If I have seemed standoffish at community events, it’s because I have no idea what people are saying. 

My dad farmed when nobody wore hearing protection around machinery, and it showed. He did, eventually, get hearing aids. I knew what they cost and how frequently he needed adjustments. That wasn’t something Bill and I could manage, so we just kept putting off getting hearing tests ourselves. 

But this summer, I celebrated the birthday that qualifies me to receive the Medicare benefits to which I have contributed a portion of my earnings since the age of 16. I chose a Medicare Advantage plan that includes hearing aid coverage. We’re hoping for a bulk discount since my husband’s hearing is also now more impaired than selective. 

Bill’s mom waited so long before getting hearing aids that she never got used to wearing them. After so many years of muffled sound, she couldn’t stand to hear herself chew. I think of all the things she missed that I don’t want to miss, too. Birdsong. Chorus frogs. Children’s voices. Conversation in a restaurant. Coyotes singing at night. The whistle of a winter wind blowing snow into drifts. Sheets flapping on the clothesline. A pileated pecking at a dead tree. The rustle of corn stalks. The low rumble of thunder in the distance. The glorious drip-drop of a tenth inch of rain during a drought. The roar of a rapid a mile away when there’s high water on the Wolf River. The rattle of dog tags and the soft thump of paws on the porch steps. A neighbor’s voice when we meet going opposite directions on a country road and stop – windows down, engines idling – for a quick exchange of local news. Wedding ceremonies and funeral services. Private jokes my husband has told so many times he now just mutters the punch line. 

There’s another reason why I want to address my hearing loss soon. Recent research suggests that, out of all known risk factors, hearing loss may be the largest contributor to dementia. There was nothing wrong with my late mother’s hearing (her dementia was related to her cardiovascular history). But from our experience with her, it makes sense to me that the brain could compensate for impaired hearing by constantly reallocating resources to help process sound at the expense of thinking and memory. In that situation, it’s not so much that hearing loss causes dementia, but hearing loss taxes the brain in a way that can lead to dementia. That’s called a cognitive load hypothesis. There’s also a hypothesis that the parts of the brain that process auditory stimulation can begin to atrophy faster when that stimulus is lost. 

Farming is among the occupations recognized as having the highest risks for hearing loss. Lengthy exposure to high sound levels like tractors, silage blowers, skid-steer loaders, grain dryers, and squealing pigs can cause noise-induced hearing loss to farmworkers of all ages, including teenagers. Most people I know who farm now use hearing protection religiously. Same is true for loggers and people who mow lawns for a living. Those folks put hearing protection on their kids and grandkids when they go to the demolition derby at the county fair, or to parades where fire truck and ambulance sirens are loud enough to drown out the high school marching band.

It’s hard for people in fire, EMS, and law enforcement to protect their hearing where siren use is measured not in blocks but in miles, and you have radio traffic at full volume while the siren is blaring. By the time I get to a scene and work around a bunch of fire trucks at high idle for a while, you’ll want to tap my shoulder before speaking to me (in the left ear, please). Add in some wind noise and maybe rain pelting a metal roof and I am well on my way to cognitive overload. 

My dad had three primary settings for his hearing aids – inside, outside and church (a single voice from a distance). I don’t know if there are settings that even can improve my auditory acuity around sirens, diesel engines, and scratchy radio transmissions.

But I am hoping that hearing aids will let me go to community events at the (hardwood floored) town hall and be part of conversations again. Because I’m sure some of my neighbors are going to that Kiss concert and I want to hear all about it.

Donna Kallner writes from Langlade County in rural northern Wisconsin, where she is a member of the Wolf River Volunteer Fire Department.

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