HEARING LOSS FROM LOUD MUSIC: A BILLION YOUNG PEOPLE AT RISK
Music is a vital aspect of everyday living. It's all around us, cheering us up whenever we are down. So many of us spend our weekends frequenting live music venues, the club scene, concerts, or take it with us everywhere on our phones because we enjoy it so much.
Nothing compares to listening to your favorite music and playing your favorite song on full blast. But have you ever thought about lowering the volume while jamming through a workout or humming along to your Daily Mix at work? And, do you know that loud music may damage young ears?
Researchers say people who use headphones and listen to music louder than is advised run the risk of developing hearing loss. According to a study published on BMJ Global Health, more than 1 billion young adults and teenagers may be at risk for loss of hearing due to their use of headphones, earbuds, and other listening devices, as well as attending loud music venues.
The research, published in 2022 and led by the World Health Organization, examined data from 33 peer-reviewed studies on hearing loss involving more than 19,000 people over 20 years.
According to the global team of researchers, about 24% of people between the ages of 12 and 34 are using personal listening devices, such as headphones, smartphones, and earbuds, to listen to music at an "unsafe level." They demanded that safe listening regulations be put in place "urgently" by the government.
Researchers claimed that noise levels in entertainment venues typically range from 104 to 112 decibels and that headphone users around the world regularly listen to music at 105 decibels. Both of these levels are above what is advised, but other elements, such as the frequency and duration of the sound, also play a role in determining potential hearing damage. Generally, noises at or below 70 decibels, or the volume of typical conversation, are safe and unlikely to result in hearing loss.
The study confirms that a high percentage of adolescents and young adults engage in risky listening behaviors: 48.2% attended loud entertainment venues, while 23.81% listened to music on personal devices at dangerous levels (though there is little certainty on this rate). Estimates indicate that up to 1.35 billion young people could be at risk of hearing loss worldwide. According to the World Health Organization, 430 million people worldwide already have disabling hearing loss, and the prevalence could double if hearing loss prevention is not given priority.
The authors acknowledged that "changes to the policy on safe listening in some countries" and "demographic factors" were not taken into account. Nonetheless, they still came to the conclusion that exposure to loud music in public places and through personal listening devices could put up to a billion young adults and teenagers at risk of hearing loss in the future.
So, how is the habit of listening to music at unsafely high volumes jeopardizing the hearing of billions of young adults globally? Loud noise can harm your ear's hair cells, nerves, membranes, or other components. This may result in short-term or long-term hearing loss.
Let's find out how it occurs so you can stop hearing loss.
Loud sounds occur in many everyday scenarios. So what is particularly problematic about loud music? Overexposure, as with everything else, can lead to harm.
Sounds are measured in decibels (dB). Those that are safe and won't usually harm your hearing are less than 70 dB. However, repeated or prolonged exposure to sounds above 85 can lead to hearing loss.
The maximum volume of personal listening devices is well above 70 dB, with the sound waves from earbuds or headphones directly entering your ears. Therefore, hearing loss becomes more likely with louder volumes and extended listening.
Our ears are complex and susceptible to damage. For example, our inner ear (cochlea) helps us hear because it contains millions of tiny hair-like structures made up of thousands of cells.
The inner ear is particularly sensitive to loud noise. Hearing loss can result from listening to loud noises for extended periods or from repeated exposure to extremely loud noises. The cochlea's membranes and cells can be harmed by loud noise. Prolonged exposure can overwork ear hair cells, leading to cell death. As long as the exposure continues, the hearing loss worsens.
On average, a person has about 16,000 hair cells at the time of birth. Your brain can perceive sounds, thanks to these cells. However, before changes in your hearing can be detected by a hearing test, up to 30% to 50% of hair cells may be harmed or lost. By the time you become aware of hearing loss, numerous hair cells have already been lost and are irreparably damaged.
Apart from damaging hair cells, loud noise can also damage the auditory nerve, which sends information about sounds to your brain. So even after exposure has ended, it influences how quickly you could experience hearing issues. In most cases, damage to the auditory neural system or inner ear is irreversible.
Now that we know the aftermath of listening to loud music, what else can we do, if not throw away our headphones and refrain from going to clubs and experiencing live music?
When using earphones or headphones, generally, the volume is too high if you can hear the music clearly, even when you are several feet away. Try removing your earbuds and holding them at arm's length. If the music is still clearly audible, the loudness is unsafe.
At a loud music venue or concert, experts recommend moving away from the noise source, taking frequent breaks, limiting the number of times we visit loud music venues or the amount of time we spend there. Wearing personal hearing protection in clubs (like ear muffs or ear plugs that are appropriate for the situation) is also advisable.
Also, wear high-fidelity earplugs made for professional musicians. Unlike typical earplugs, which can reduce noise by reducing higher-frequency sounds but not lower-frequency ones, these devices have a flat, attenuated filter that allows all frequencies along the sound spectrum to reach the inner ear.
You can even use a free noise risk calculator to determine your risk using an online sound level meter. This helps explore lifestyle changes that could protect your hearing while still enabling you to enjoy music.
Nowadays, most phones include software that can regulate appropriate listening volumes and reduce exposure.
Frequent exposure to sounds louder than 70 dB (decibels) can eventually lead to hearing issues and hearing loss. The rate of damage increases with sound volume. Limit the volume of your music device, and take a break from listening every hour. Avoid being near loudspeakers and bring hearing protection when attending a loud event.
Precautions could make it possible to enjoy music with personal devices and at live-music venues while still protecting the gift of hearing.
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- Dillard LK, Arunda MO, Lopez-Perez L, et al. Prevalence and global estimates of unsafe listening practices in adolescents and young adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis BMJ Global Health 2022;7:e010501.
- "Noise-Induced Hearing Loss." NIDCD, 16 Mar. 2022, www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/noise-induced-hearing-loss.
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