Would you willingly destroy your sense of hearing?
Of course the answer is no, but there is new data that seems to tell a different story. Preventable, noise-induced hearing loss is on the rise like never before and it’s becoming a big problem.
And teens are experiencing hearing loss in record numbers, too. In fact, they’ve been hit the hardest of all.
So what’s happening here? In 2016, why are we facing an unprecedented epidemic of hearing loss?
There are many factors, but the short answer is that we are unwittingly exposing ourselves to dangerously loud levels of sound more often than we ever have before.
For the average person, it’s a cause for concern.
But if you suffer from a chronic illness that affects your ears or your hearing, like I do, it’s a wake up call.
We have to take steps to protect our hearing at all costs, before it’s too late.
Most people have at least some idea of what it’s like to live with hearing loss. Tinnitus too. Just ask anyone who’s been to a loud concert and you’ll see what I mean.
Exposure to excessively loud sounds, even for a short period of time will often cause temporary hearing loss and ringing in your ears. It’s a result of how we process sound.
Sound waves first enter through the ear canal and hit the ear drum which sends vibrations to the middle ear. Next, the three tiny bones of the middle ear, the anvil, hammer, and stirrup, translate these vibrations into waves that ripple through the fluid-filled cochlea in the inner ear. Inside of the cochlea, microscopic sensory organs called hair cells transform these waves into the electrical signals our brain can understand.
The problem is that loud sounds cause waves that damage the hair cells resulting in temporary hearing loss. The hair cells can heal themselves to a certain extent, but not indefinitely. Over time, and with repeated exposure to loud sounds, the hair cells will start to die off leaving you with permanent hearing loss.
As I write this, there is still no way to regenerate these hair cells once they’re gone. In a very real sense, our hearing is a limited resource. We can only hear so many loud sounds before our hearing starts to diminish.
And if you have a disorder that causes hearing loss, you’re starting with a disadvantage and need to take action to prevent further damage.
How Loud is too Loud:
The first thing you need to know is that sound is measured in decibels. Here are the decibel ratings of several common sounds to give you a point of reference.
- A whisper – 20 decibels
- The humming of a refrigerator – 45 decibels
- Normal conversation – 60 decibels
- Noise from heavy city traffic – 85 decibels
- Motorcycles – 95 decibels
- An MP3 player at maximum volume – 105-120 decibels
- Rock Concerts, live music, sporting events – 108-120 decibels
- An ambulance siren – 120 decibels
- A Jet engine at take off – 140 decibels
- Firecrackers and firearms – 150 decibels
- A Rocket Launch – 180 decibels
According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), 85 decibels is the danger threshold. Listening to sound at 75 decibels or lower, even for extended periods of time, will not cause permanent damage. But anything from 85 decibels and up will. In fact, if a sound is loud enough, it can cause immediate permanent damage to your hearing.
But even when the hearing loss is temporary, there is still damage being done. Remember, our hearing is a finite resource. Once our hair cells die off, there is no coming back. Repeated loud sound exposure will lead to hearing loss in the long run 100% of the time.
Youth at Risk:
While loud sounds don’t discriminate, the rate of hearing loss among young people is worse than it’s ever been before.
According to a 2015 report from the World Health Organization (WHO):
“Some 1.1 billion teenagers and young adults are at risk of hearing loss due to the unsafe use of personal audio devices, including smartphones, and exposure to damaging levels of sound at noisy entertainment venues such as nightclubs, bars and sporting events, according to WHO. Hearing loss has potentially devastating consequences for physical and mental health, education and employment.
Data from studies in middle and high-income countries analyzed by WHO indicate that among teenagers and young adults aged 12-35 years, nearly 50% are exposed to unsafe levels of sound from the use of personal audio devices and around 40% are exposed to potentially damaging levels of sound at entertainment venues. Unsafe levels of sounds can be, for example, exposure to in excess of 85 decibels (dB) for eight hours or 100dB for 15 minutes.”
The rise of smart phones and ear bud headphones are definitely not helping the problem. In 2010 a study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, showing 32% increase in hearing loss among American teens over the previous decade. According to the study, 1 in 5 teens in America now suffer some degree of hearing loss.
The problem seems to stem from a lack of understanding. Dr. Etienne Krug, the World Health Organization Director of the Department for Management of Noncommunicable Diseases, notes, “As they go about their daily lives doing what they enjoy, more and more young people are placing themselves at risk of hearing loss.”
The good news is that we can do something about it. Noise-induced hearing loss is entirely preventable.
How to Protect your Hearing:
Fortunately, there are many things we can do to prevent noise-induced hearing loss. And because hearing loss is permanent, a good defense is the best offense.
Turn down the volume of your music to safer levels – Most headphones and music players can go up to 120 decibels, the same damaging level as loud concerts. According to Dr. Foy, an Osteopathic pediatrician and expert in child hearing loss, “If you can’t hear anything going on around you when listening to headphones, the decibel level is too high.” Dr. Foy suggests listening to music with the volume at 60%.
Choose the right kind of Headphones -The kind of headphones you use will also make a difference. Over the ear headphones are a better choice than ear buds because the speaker is farther from the ear drum. Ear buds sit very close to the ear drum and create an air tight seal in the air canal, increasing the intensity and volume of the sound.
Noise Canceling Headphones – If you want to go the extra mile, get noise-canceling headphones. By reducing background noise, you can enjoy your music at lower volume levels.
High-Fidelity Earplugs – If you are going to be in a loud environment for an extended period of time, wearing earplugs is a good idea. The problem is that regular earplugs will dampen sound, making it hard to carry on conversations. If you’re at a concert, it will muffle and distort the quality of the music. High-fidelity earplugs solve both of these problems by reducing the decibel level of sound without disturbing the quality. If you’ve never tried these before, they are game changers. I highly recommend Etymotic.
Earplugs – Earplugs are a tried and true method for protecting your ears. Which type you chose is a matter of personal preference. Personally I prefer the silicone kind, but they all work well. Just make sure you get the right size and use them properly.
It’s a shame that hearing loss isn’t talked about more often. We can do so much better as a society to raise awareness.
I certainly didn’t know any of this when I was younger. And looking back, I know I did a lot of damage to my ears. I constantly listened to loud music over headphones and went to loud concerts. One time, when I was 17, I stood so close to the speakers at a music festival that for 3 days the world sounded as though it was filtered through a tin can.
Living with Meniere’s disease has given me a whole new appreciation for my hearing. I never even considered hearing loss until the day I was diagnosed. Knowing you might lose your hearing is a hard pill to swallow. But so is knowing that the damage I did in my teens may catch up to me one day.
Our hearing is such a precious resource, and one I took for granted for far too long. But today I’m taking action to keep it for as long as I can.
I hope you will follow in my footsteps and protect your hearing, too.