Are you at risk for hearing loss?
An alarming number of twenty-somethings have irreversible hearing damage. Listen up, before it’s too late.
You probably shield Your skin
with SPF and your eyes with sunnies, but how often do you grab earplugs before hitting a concert? The answer is: likely not enough. One in five Americans ages 20 to 29 already has hearing damage, according to new research published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And 1.1 billion young people worldwide are at risk for hearing loss, per the World Health Organization. Most of the affected don’t even know it—which is distressing, since once you’ve lost any part of your hearing, it’s gone forever.
The culprit is, not surprisingly, technology and the ways we use it. Today’s earbuds may stay put during a run, but they cause more harm than traditional over-ear headphones. “Earbuds focus the noise right into your eardrum,” says Yulia Carroll, MD, senior medical officer at the National Center for Environ mental Health at the CDC, “so the effect on your hearing is stronger.”
Meanwhile, 40 percent of young people ages 12 to 35 are regularly exposed to danger- ous noise levels at concerts and sporting events. Nightclubs and bars pump music at intense volumes. And those cranked beats that get you through cycling class? They may do wonders for your butt, but they’re wrecking your ears (research shows that some workout classes reach 94 decibels [db], higher than the recommended noise-exposure limit of 85 db).
Wherever you are, if noise is preventing you from hearing a friend standing a few feet away, it’s probably causing damage, says Dr. Carroll. We’re born with around 16,000 hair cells in each inner ear that help convert sound waves into electrical signals for the brain. These cells bend when exposed to sound, then straighten. But they’re like blades of grass: Step on them once and they bounce back; crush them constantly and you’ll kill the lawn. Trampled hair cells don’t regenerate.
One small bit of good news: noise-induced hearing loss is tied to both volume and duration. That means you’d have to listen to something at 85 decibels for eight straight hours to cause damage (see “How Loud Is Too Loud?”). At levels over 100 db, your window shrinks to 15 minutes.
I blared the clash and David Bowie in high school and joined a rock band at eight. My ears would ring for days after practice, but in my 20s, I didn’t think twice about it. At 30, I began having trouble tuning into convos with friends and colleagues. When baristas in my neighborhood repeated my order back to me, I’d just smile and nod. I thought everyone around me just needed to speak up. Meanwhile, I watched Strangerthings with subtitles because I couldn’t hear the dialogue.
Eventually, an audiologist confirmed that my muffled hearing and the constant ringing in my ears were a direct result of the years I’d spent blasting (and making) highvolume music. I cried when he told me. I now use hearing aids—but to my happy surprise, they’re not old-school giant tan plastic contraptions. They’re nearly invisible. Not one person has ever asked me about them.
These days, I keep the music down to avoid further damage. At night, when all is quiet, I still listen to the sound of my ears ringing.
—Dana such ow, as told to leslie gold man