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Hearing Loss Causes: MP3 & iPods Raises Teen Hearing Loss

It is no news to anyone who has been reading articles on this site that prolonged exposure to loud music (or any ear-shattering noise, for that matter) is detrimental to our hearing. Live concerts as well as personal audio devices are known hazards, because their volume often exceeds the 85-decibel (dB) level considered as safe for listening up to 8 hours straight, reaching, in many cases, over 100 dB (only considered safe for 15 minutes). Repeated exposure to that level damages the tiny hair cells in our inner ears and eventually leads to permanent hearing loss.

However, research conducted in this country and elsewhere indicates that young people disregard all warnings and willingly endanger their hearing. For example, a Dutch focus-group study carried out at two high schools in the Netherlands revealed that the teens were aware of the damaging effect of loud music, yet still opted to play their iPods at maximum pitch because they believed – mistakenly of course – that they were immune to hearing loss. Other studies, including some from the United States, concur with these findings.

Are teens in your life at risk? Are you at risk for damaging your hearing loss? If you pump up the volume, then yes.

If you need more proof, read this

Now, a new study from Children's Hospital Boston and City University of New York (CUNY) – the largest of its kind to date - also finds that the majority of college students using MP3 players and iPods exceed the recommended sound limits while listening.

To investigate this alarming trend, Brian Fligor, Sc.D. CCC-A, director of the Diagnostic Audiology Program at Children's Hospital Boston, and his collaborators at CUNY, Sandra Levey, Ph.D., and Tania Levey, Ph.D., recorded the MP3 and iPod headphone levels of 189 college students at a New York City university as they entered the campus.

The findings, which Fligor calls "extremely concerning," were not really surprising, considering recent research suggesting that today's teenagers have worse hearing than those of generations past – mostly due to exposure to loud music: 58.2 percent of participants exceeded daily sound exposure limits and 51.9 percent exceeded weekly sound exposure limits, suggesting that over half of college students in the urban environment are at risk for noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL).

"Some people, especially those using their headphones in a noisy environment, like a city street or subway, do listen at levels high enough and for durations of time that pose a risk to hearing," Fligor tells Healthy Hearing. "This is an issue that won't cause a problem immediately as it takes years to do significant damage, but once it occurs; this damage is irreversible and sets the stage for poorer hearing at younger ages than in previous generations. The risk is real and needs to be taken seriously."

And that's not all...

Here is another proof why this problem should be taken seriously and without delay: Another just-released national study shows that one in five teens has already lost some hearing, and the problem has increased substantially in recent years.

This finding is based on data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey conducted by a branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The findings are being published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The researchers analyzed data on 12- to 19-year-olds and compared hearing loss in nearly 3,000 kids tested from 1988-94 to almost 1,800 kids tested over 2005-06. The result? The prevalence of hearing loss increased from about 15 percent to 19.5 percent!

Although the researchers didn't pinpoint MP3s or iPods as specific culprits, they believe these audio devices are not totally blameless, especially since another recent study from Australia linked the use of personal listening devices with a 70 percent increased risk of hearing loss in children.

Given such preponderance of evidence, experts are urging teenagers to turn down the volume on their digital music players. They warn that even a slight hearing loss can cause problems in school and require use of hearing aids in later life.

Hearing loss risk for all ages

children hearing loss
Teen hearing loss on rise, but all ages groups at risk

While Fligor's study focused on college students, he, as well as other hearing health professionals, believe that all age groups are impacted by NIHL.

According to National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), approximately 15 percent of Americans between the ages of 20 and 69—or 26 million people—have high frequency hearing loss that may have been caused by exposure to loud sounds. Those numbers don't include millions of children who already suffer from NIHL as well.

Fligor says his study was conducted on college students rather than any other age group because they are the most likely to own and use an MP3 player.

However, he adds that harmful use of the personal audio system is not limited to that particular demographic group, but is quite widespread and common. "People who commute to school or work and use headphones can use them safely, and they can also use them unsafely," Fligor comments. "And the cut off for safe vs. unsafe is not obvious to the layperson, or to most professionals for that matter. Better technological tools and consumer and professional education are needed."

Sound advice

Since what Fligor calls "consumer education" is lacking, how does an average person know when to lower the volume or turn off the music altogether?

"It's the 'level over time' thing - limit listening level to 70 percent of max if you listen for up to four hours per day," he explains. "If you listen less than 90 minutes per day, 80 percent of max is fine."

However, you are not out of the woods yet. The above advice only works if you use the ear bud headphones that come with the MP3 player; if you swapped out headphones, these numbers aren't a good guide, Fligor points out.

Another rule-of-thumb that could work: "Turn on the TV to a comfortable level, then put in the headphones and turn it to a level where you now can't hear the dialogue. That's roughly 85 dB coming out of the headphones. Don't go above that. The old adage – 'If I can hear music from the headphones, that means it's too loud' is false. We debunked that about two years ago in a different study."

Listen to reason, not loud music

As disturbing as these results are, some good may come out of the study IF young people listen less to loud music and more to warnings and advice from hearing health professionals.

These tips come from the "Listen to Your Buds," campaign by the American Speech Language Hearing Association:

  • Many personal music players don't have volume control indicators. An easy way to set a safe listening level is to crank it up all the way, then back to halfway.
  • Take "listening breaks" from loud music or other sources of loud noise to give ears a chance to recover.

"Turn it to the Left", a public campaign launched by the American Academy of the Audiology keeps their can dos for preventing hearing loss simple:

  • Turn down the volume
  • Walk away from the noise
  • Wear hearing protection

If you are concerned you or your child may have hearing loss or be at risk for noise induced hearing loss it is wise to consult with an audiologist or other hearing professional.

Find a local hearing professional near you.

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