Think hearing loss is a health concern exclusively for the elderly? Think again. Hearing loss effects children and adults of all ages and can result from numerous factors ranging from genetic predisposition, medications such as chemotherapy agents, steroids and certain antibiotics, auto-immune diseases, viruses, head trauma and noise exposure. Currently, there is no cure for most types of hearing loss, but, hearing loss resulting from excessive noise exposure is preventable.
The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) estimates that approximately 26 million Americans between the ages of 20 and 69 have high frequency hearing loss due to exposure to noise at work or during leisure activities . Research suggests that the prevalence of hearing loss is increasing for adults aging between 20-30 and that 12.5% of 6-19 year olds and 16.8% of 12-19 year olds in the U.S. have documented evidence of elevated hearing thresholds directly attributed to noise exposure .
While these statistics are disconcerting, healthy and safe practice can protect ears from the damaging effects of noise not only from obviously loud venues such as concerts and night clubs, but from personal listening devices as well. It makes sense that the louder the sound, the more susceptible to noise damage. Furthermore, as the sound level increases, the length of safe exposure decreases. For each 3 decibel (dB) increase in sound level, the permissible listening time decreases by half. This is true both at a noisy venue with large speakers, or on a personal level with an MP3 player or other headphone use. A study by the European Union’s Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks, approximates that 5-10% of MP3 listeners are at risk for noise-induced hearing loss due to the levels and duration of listening habits.
When it comes to concerts and other excessively noisy venues, good practice makes great sense: stay as far away from the speakers as possible; limit the time of exposure and include quiet breaks; use ear protection: either foam or custom fit ear plugs which offer a secure acoustic seal and greater noise protection; and avoid having others shout into your ears.
For personal listening devices, the safest practice involves lowering the volume level. Investing in a high quality pair of noise reduction head phones or custom fit ear buds will enable listeners to keep the volume down while maintaining sound fidelity from the source. A quieter surrounding environment provided by noise cancelling headphones or custom ear buds will allow the listener to keep the volume down, providing a safer listening condition, and enabling longer permissible listening time. As a reference, most people listen to headphones at 85dB which is considered safe for eight hours, however increasing the sound level to 88dB decreases the permissible length of safe listening time. Remember, for each 3 dB elevation in sound level, the permissible listening time decreases by half. Not sure of the decibel level in your sound environment? Most smart phones have apps that can be downloaded to help regulate your listening habits.
While noise induced hearing loss is not reversible, it is never too late to change unhealthy listening habits. The effects of noise exposure are cumulative over time. Awareness of the irreversible effects of damaging noise levels on hearing, and a smart approach to noise from speakers or headphones, is the first line of defense for preventable hearing loss.
Listen smart and hear better. If you suspect you have hearing loss, have ringing in your ears, experience ear pain or muffled sound, call your doctor or your audiologist.
Stefanie Wolf Au.D.
Doctor of Audiology
US Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, Quick Statistics, http://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/statistics/pages/quick.aspx
Agrawal Y., Elizabeth A. Platz E., Niparko, J. Prevalence of Hearing Loss and Differences by Demographic Characteristics Among US Adults Data From the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1999-2004. Arch Intern Med. 2008;168(14):1522-1530. doi:10.1001/archinte.168.14.1522.
Niskar, A.S.et al. NHANES III, 1988-1994, United States, Pediatrics, 108, 2001
Henderson, E. et al. NHANES 2005-2006, United States, Pediatrics, 127, 2011
European Union’s Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks , Potential health risks of exposure to noise from personal music players and mobile phones including a music playing function, http://ec.europa.eu/health/ph_risk/committees/04_scenihr/docs/scenihr_o_018.pdf