Have you ever wondered if your children or grandchildren are damaging their hearing by using personal listening devices, cellphones, or by listening to music that’s too loud? Most of us look at the noisy environment that envelopes young people today, and we can’t help but worry about this as potentially hazardous to their hearing.
We often think of hearing loss as a problem affecting only older Americans. However, a stunning one in five teens has lost a little bit of hearing, and the problem has increased substantially in recent years, a new national study has found. Audiologists and hearing healthcare researchers are urging teenagers to turn down the volume on their digital music players, suggesting loud music delivered through earbuds may be to blame. Although definitive evidence is lacking about the cause, experts warn that slight hearing loss can cause problems in school and set the stage for increased hearing loss in later life.
“Our hope is we can encourage people to be careful,” said the study’s senior author, Dr. Gary Curhan of Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Researchers here analyzed data on 12–19-year-olds from a nationwide health survey. They compared hearing loss in nearly 3,000 kids tested from 1988–94 to nearly 1,800 kids tested over 2005–06.
The prevalence of hearing loss increased from about 15%–19.5%. Most of the hearing loss was slight, defined as inability to hear at 16–24 decibels, or sounds such as a whisper or rustling leaves. A teenager with slight hearing loss might not be able to hear water dripping or his mother whispering, “Goodnight.”
Extrapolating this data to the nation’s teen population, that would mean about 6.5 million young people with at least slight hearing loss. Those with slight hearing loss “will hear all of the vowel sounds clearly, but might miss some of the consonant sounds” such as t, k, and s, Curhan said. “Although speech will be detectable, it might not be fully intelligible,” he said. While the researchers didn’t single out iPods or any other device for blame, they found a significant increase in high-frequency hearing loss, which they said might indicate that noise caused the problems. And they cited a 2010 Australian study that linked use of personal listening devices with a 70% increased risk of hearing loss in children. Theses findings recently appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Loud music isn’t new, of course. Each new generation of teenagers has found a new technology to blast music, from the bulky headphones of the 1960s to the handheld Sony Walkmans of the 1980s. But according to Dr. Brian Fligor, an audiologist at Harvard Medical School, today’s young people are listening longer, more than twice as long as previous generations; older technologies had limited battery life and limited music storage, he points out. And with the Apple iPod, users can set their own volume limits, but parents can use the feature to set a maximum volume on their child’s iPod and lock it with a code.
One of Fligor’s patients, 17-year-old Matthew Brady of Foxborough, Mass., recently was diagnosed with mild hearing loss. He has trouble hearing his friends in the school cafeteria. He ends up faking comprehension. “I laugh when they laugh,” he said.
Fligor believes Brady’s muffled hearing was caused by listening to an iPod turned up too loud and for too long. After his mother had a heart attack, Brady’s pediatrician had advised him to exercise for his own health. So he cranked up the volume on his music while walking on a treadmill at least four days a week for 30-minute stretches. One day last summer, he got off the treadmill and found he couldn’t hear anything with his left ear. His hearing gradually returned, but was never the same.
Often, young people turn their digital players up to levels that would exceed federal workplace exposure limits. In Fligor’s own study of about 200 New York college students, more than half listened to music at 85 decibels or louder. That’s about as loud as a hair dryer or a vacuum cleaner. Habitual listening at those levels can turn microscopic hair cells in the inner ear into scar tissue, and for reasons that we don’t fully understand, some people may be more predisposed to damage than others; Fligor believes Brady is one of them. And remember, once damage is inflicted, it cannot be undone.
These days, Brady still listens to his digital player, but at lower volumes. His sage advice: “Do not blare your iPod,” he said. “It’s only going to hurt your hearing. I learned this the hard way.”
If you or a loved one are concerned with a teen’s hearing or listening habits, visit our website for more information, or contact an audiologist for comprehensive hearing evaluation.