Unsafe music listening habits endanger the hearing of up to 1.35 billion young adults around the world, according to a study published Tuesday.
Researchers found that many people between the ages of 18 and 34 regularly listen to music through personal headphones and at entertainment venues where the sound is too loud and for unsafe periods of time, putting their future ear health at risk.
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The research, led by academics at the University of South Carolina, reviewed data from 33 peer-reviewed hearing loss studies involving a total of more than 19,000 people over the past two decades. The study found that young people regularly listen to music at sound levels considered unsafe and concluded that the need to promote safer listening practices was “urgent”.
Headphone users around the world often listen to music at 105 decibels, they said, and sound levels in entertainment venues range from 104 to 112 decibels on average. These are both higher than recommended levels, although other factors, including the duration and frequency of the sound, are also important in determining how much hearing may be damaged. Sounds at or below 70 decibels, which is within the range of normal conversation, are generally considered safe and unlikely to cause hearing loss, according to the National Institutes of Health.
“A rough rule of thumb is, if you’re using earplugs, take them out and keep them at arm’s length,” Sam Couth, an ear health researcher at the University of Manchester, told The Washington Post. “And if you can still clearly hear the music at arm’s length, it’s too loud.”
NIH guidelines suggest “prolonged or repeated exposure to sounds at or above 85 [decibels] can cause hearing loss. The louder the sound, the shorter the time it takes for NIHL [noise-induced hearing loss] happen.” And 85 decibels is about the noise level of a motorcycle or a dirt bike.
Researchers in the study published this week estimated that between 18 and 29 percent of young people worldwide regularly exposed themselves to excessively loud sounds on headphones, and they estimated that just under half were exposed to unsafe levels in loud locations. Using UN population data, they calculated the total number of young individuals worldwide at risk, ranging from 665 million to 1.35 billion.
It also supports research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which found in a 2011-2012 study that hearing loss from exposure to loud noise was widespread in the United States, affecting between 10 million and 40 million adults under the age of 70, and described it as a “significant, often unrecognized health problem”.
Loud noises pose a threat to ear health because of the damage they do to the outer hair cells in the ear’s cochlea, Couth said. “These cells are responsible for amplifying sounds. They help us hear things better. If they get damaged by loud noise, they won’t amplify everyday sounds and we won’t be able to hear.” New studies also suggest that loud noises can permanently interfere with the connection between the inner hair cells and the auditory nerve, which transmits sound signals to the brain.
To reduce your risk, experts advise moving further away from the source of the sound at a loud concert or music venue, taking frequent breaks, and – as a last line of defense – using hi-fi earplugs designed for professional musicians. These devices have a flat, attenuated filter that allows all frequencies along the sound spectrum to reach the inner ear, unlike regular earplugs, which can have a dampening effect on noise by reducing higher frequency sounds but not lower frequencies.
Aside from the temporary ringing that can last a few days, the damage done by loud noise to the outer hair cells is permanent, Couth said.
“Your hearing won’t come back once you lose it, so you’ll have hearing loss for the rest of your life,” he said, warning that studies have linked hearing loss to depression, loss of livelihood and even the risk of dementia. “It will have an impact on your quality of life for the rest of your life.”
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