The human body is a complex machine, and ensuring that it runs optimally is no easy task. Most of us can recite the basics of good self-care—drink lots of water, eat right, get enough sleep—but there are areas we all tend to neglect (or at least not think about as much). Ironically, these areas tend to get the most daily use, like your eyes, ears and nose. These sense organs are delicate yet resilient, and a good dose of preventative medicine can go a long way toward keeping them disease-free for as long as possible.
“Ninety percent of the pathology of the body happens above the clavicle,” says Dr. Nissim Khabie, an ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor at ENT SpecialtyCare in Maple Grove. Many common issues, from sleep apnea and acid reflux to sinusitis and thyroid problems, start in or have an effect on the head and neck. While a deviated septum or enlarged tonsils are fixable with surgery, for the vast majority of patients, simple lifestyle changes are the best way to prevent a visit to an ENT.
“Smoking and drinking are huge,” Khabie says. “For tongue and throat cancer, of course, but kids of parents who smoke are at a much higher risk of asthma, sinus diseases and even ear infections.”
Maintaining a healthy weight, exercising, eating well and quitting smoking are all ways to reduce your chances of developing many life-threatening diseases, but one of the lesser-known causes of cancers of the head and neck is HPV, the most common sexually-transmitted infection. It’s common knowledge certain strains of the virus cause cervical cancer, but they can also contribute to tongue, throat and mouth cancer.
“Get vaccinated,” says Khabie, referring to Gardasil, the vaccine that protects against the scariest strains of HPV. He also stresses getting checked by a physician if you exhibit certain symptoms like repeated bouts of laryngitis, a sore throat that lasts longer than a few weeks or unusual lumps or bumps on your neck.
“A lot of this stuff is curable if it’s caught early,” he says.
Early intervention is also important for the health of your ears. Though hearing loss is a natural part of the aging process, daily exposure to loud noises can cause permanent damage that significantly accelerates this natural decline.
“We’re now seeing 30-year-olds with the hearing you’d expect a 70-year-old to have,” says Khabie. The biggest culprit? Earbuds.
“We’ll have people come in with their headphones set to where they’re comfortable for them, then have them put on their favorite song and measure how loud it is,” says Dr. Kevin Amdahl, owner of Amdahl Hearing clinic. He’s encountered clients whose standard volume is 114 decibels. “At that rate, you can listen to that song twice, then you’re doing significant damage,” he says.
After baby boomers, the fastest-growing age group with an increase in incidents of hearing loss is people under 25.
The keys to preserving your hearing are decreasing the volume and length of time you spend exposed to noisy situations and using protective gear like ear plugs and noise-canceling, over-the-ear headphones.
“It’s important to understand what noisy is,” Amdahl says. “If you’re running a piece of equipment and you have to raise your voice to be heard over it, it’s too loud.”
This standard applies not only to chainsaws and lawnmowers but even household blenders, everyday traffic and, again, listening to loud audio with earbuds.
Hearing loss is not merely an inconvenience, Amdahl says. There is a correlation between hearing loss and increased rates of cognitive decline, dementia, social withdrawal and depression. “Dementia is the single greatest healthcare expenditure in this country,” he says. “We could have a direct effect on that number with early treatment of hearing loss.”
Signs that something has caused permanent hearing damage include muffled hearing or ringing in the ears; your doctor can conduct a baseline hearing screening to help you determine if treatment or hearing aids are necessary.
Preserving your hearing has a lot in common with preserving your overall health, Amdahl says. “Turn off all the stuff and allow yourself some quiet time,” he says. “If you’re wearing headphones and someone else can hear it, it’s too loud.”
Sometimes, the technology or medications that solve one problem in our lives create another; a prime example is dry eye disease, a chronic condition that has many potential causes, from hormonal changes to long-term daily use of soft contact lenses.
Symptoms range from mild to severe and often include the feeling of hot, burning, stinging or gritty eyes. The problem is a lot more common than people realize. “In the U.S., approximately 10 percent of people are troubled with dry eye problems,” says Dr. Michael Dieter, an optometrist and founder of Dry Eye Clinic.
Dry eye is a result of a lack of tear production or the production of poor quality tears, which are necessary to hydrate the cornea. While the underlying cause can be difficult to pinpoint, there are some factors that contribute to a worsening of symptoms.
“People in windy, dry climates, like desert conditions, will suffer from this much more,” Dieter says. “Blinking is another part of the system that is vitally important. Under normal conditions, we might blink our eyes 20 times a minute. When we become distracted and blink less than needed, such as when viewing a computer, the ocular surface does not get sufficient protection or nutrition and breakdowns begin.”
Doctors aren’t yet certain of the best way to completely prevent dry eye, but tailoring treatment to each patient is the best way to provide them with relief, Dieter says.
“Last week, we had a lady come from Oklahoma that had no less than 10 factors contributing to her dry eye condition,” Dieter says. “How do I figure her problem out and what to do to help her? We often hear of doctors ‘practicing medicine.’ As we do it more, we hopefully become better at it. Experience helps. Passion helps.”
How much do you really know about these health topics? Take our quiz to find out!
1. At what age should you get a baseline hearing screening?
2. What other conditions are associated with chronic dry eye?
a) autoimmune diseases
b) athlete’s foot
3. What should you avoid if you have dry eye symptoms?
a) dairy and gluten
c) arid, windy environments
4. What’s the most common sign of sleep apnea?
c) daytime breathing problems
5. Long or repeated exposure to sounds above ___ decibels can cause permanent hearing loss.
1) b, 2) a, 3) c, 4) a, 5) c