Global deafness epidemic looms with one billion young people putting their hearing at risk, report claims

Turning down the racket isn’t just for disgruntled parents — a new study has shown it could protect more than 1 billion people at risk for hearing loss.

When it comes to phones, music, movies and shows, it’s common for adolescents and young adults to listen too loud and too long, according to the study published Tuesday in the journal BMJ Global Health.

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“We estimated that 0.67 billion to 1.35 billion individuals aged 12-34 years worldwide likely engage in unsafe listening practices” and are therefore at risk for hearing loss, lead study author Lauren Dillard said.

Dillard is a consultant to the World Health Organization and a postdoctoral fellow at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Exposure to sound at too high a volume can fatigue the sensory cells and structures in the ear, Dillard said. If that goes on for too long, they can become permanently damaged, resulting in hearing loss, tinnitus or both.

Researchers conducted a meta-analysis of scientific articles regarding unsafe listening practices published between 2000 and 2021 across three databases, the study said.

The unsafe practices were tracked according to the use of headphones as well as attendance at entertainment venues, such as concerts, bars and clubs, according to the study.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention limits safe noise levels about 85 decibels over 40 hours a week. If you are listening for only 2 and a half hours over a day, that is the equivalent of about 92 decibels, the study said.

Plugged into a smartphone downloaded with MP3 audio files, listeners often choose volumes as high as 105 decibels, and venues often range from 104 decibels to 112 decibels, the study said.

Fortunately, policies, businesses and individuals can put measures into place to encourage safe listening and protect hearing from damage over time, Dillard said.

The analysis of the study was rigorous, and the evidence is compelling that hearing loss should be a public health priority, University of Pretoria audiology professor De Wet Swanepoel said. The South Africa-based academic and International Journal of Audiology editor in chief was not affiliated with the study.

“Music is a gift to be enjoyed for a lifetime,” Swanepoel said. “The message is to enjoy your music but safely.”

What to do with your device

Whether listening on your own device or at a concert, Dillard cautioned that ringing ears is a good sign the music was too loud.

There are ways to prevent the damage before you notice the effects, however.

Some devices allow people to monitor their listening levels in the device settings, she said. Some even will alert you when you’ve been listening too loud for too long.

“If your device says you are listening at unsafe levels, turn down the volume and listen to music for shorter periods of time,” Dillard said.

Experts cannot conclusively say which headphones are the safest for listening, Dillard said, but she did recommend using ones that reduce background noise, which may help keep the volume at lower levels since you don’t need to drown out the noise around you.

But you don’t always have control of the volume dial.

If you are at a loud concert or venue, you can protect your hearing by standing further away from speakers and taking breaks away from the noise, if possible, Dillard said.

And it always helps to use some ear protection — even the foam ear plugs will do, she added.

“Hearing is the sense that connects us to the people we love,” Swanepoel said.

“Taking care of our hearing is key to maintaining healthy relationship(s) and general health and well-being. Primary prevention in early adults is critical to avoid earlier onset and accelerated age-related hearing loss.”

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