More than 10 million Americans already have irreversible hearing damage as a result of exposure to loud noise, and according to the latest research, the incidence of acquired hearing loss in adolescents only continues to rise. “Prevention – particularly in adolescents and young adults - is the key to maintaining long-term hearing and the quality of life that comes with experiencing a full-spectrum of sound,” says Dr. Amber Powner, hearing loss prevention expert at Audiology Associates.
National statistics point out that the number of adolescents reporting hearing loss has increased by more than 30 percent since 1988. One of the more obvious culprits for this increase is the rate of exposure young people have to high-volume noise associated with music venues like concerts, outdoor festivals, and nightclubs. At least two new studies seem to validate this assumption.
In a recent study published online by JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery, researchers have, in fact, assessed the effectiveness of earplugs in preventing temporary hearing loss due to loud music exposure. As part of this study, researchers were able to verify that earplugs are indeed effective in preventing temporary hearing loss – and for this study, the subjects were tested for exposure during a high volume outdoor music festival – proving that it is possible to enjoy a concert without injuring a person’s hearing.
“Hearing loss can occur at any age for a variety of reasons, but the most common cause is noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL), which results from repeated and/or extended exposures to loud noises,” explains Dr. Powner, who is certified in Dangerous Decibels, a program designed to teach children about hearing loss due to loud noise. “Helping young people understand the risks associated with repeated exposure to loud noise is important for their future health. Once exposure to dangerous sound levels has occurred, the hearing loss that results is irreversible. The judicious use of earplugs at concerts is one of the best ways to avoid hearing problems in the future.”
Research has shown that the practice of listening to music through earphones or headphones also serves to drive up the risk of hearing loss. “In our increasingly ‘plugged-in’ society, adolescents can struggle to moderately loud noise exposures that headphone use provides only too easily,” explains Dr. Powner. According to the National Institutes of Health, long or repeated exposure to sounds at or above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss; the louder the sound, the shorter the time period before the noise-induced hearing loss can occur. Regular exposure to more than one minute of 110 decibels or more risks permanent hearing loss. Less than 85 decibels is generally considered safe.
Another recent study relative to hearing loss in adolescents published online earlier this month in the journal Scientific Reports focused on the occurrence of tinnitus (a persistent ringing sound in the ears) in students aged between 11 and 17. While almost all students in this study admitted to participating in activities at too-loud volumes, researchers found that 29 percent of them had actually developed tinnitus – a condition that typically occurs in much older adults. Although the students with tinnitus could still hear as well as their peers, they reported a far lower tolerance for loud noise.
Low noise tolerance can be an indicator of underlying damage to nerves that work to process sound, which contributes to worsening hearing impairments down the road. Tinnitus can be a debilitating condition for some people, and an ailment that might easily be prevented in young people who are frequently exposed to high-volume environments with the application of a few commonsense measures. In addition to the wise use of earplugs, Dr. Powner recommends that concert-goers stand further away from amplifiers. As part of their normal routine, adolescents and adults should turn down the volume on their MP3 players, invest in high-quality headphones that block out background noise, and limit unprotected exposure to environments that are known to contribute to the damage of hearing.