Is Your Hearing at Risk? Here’s What You Can Do

Is Your Hearing at Risk? Here’s What You Can Do

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If someone told you that wearing certain jeans too often might trigger permanent leg numbness, or overuse of a hot sauce would cause you to lose your ability to taste sweets, you’d pay attention. You’d want to know exactly how long it would take before damage occurred. You’d make sure that you don’t go too far. You might even buy different jeans or hot sauce. Well, here’s a scary truth: What you might be doing right now to your ears could lead to permanent hearing damage. Really. But the good news is that there are some easy things you can do to prevent it.

Most people believe hearing damage is caused by sudden, excessive sound, like loud bangs and explosions. And that’s true; incredibly loud individual sounds can damage your inner ears. But that’s not how most noise-induced hearing loss is caused—it’s caused by exposure to louder-than-recommended noises over a long period of time. This is because our ears’ nerve cells—like your muscles after a workout—need a break every so often to repair themselves and flush out waste. If we don’t give our ears that rest, the nerve cells can die. And once a hearing nerve cell dies it doesn’t grow back, and the sound frequency it corresponded to is gone forever. This is why some people have trouble hearing speech, while others might not hear deep bass notes well.

To avoid hearing damage, the OSHA standard that the World Health Organization recommends over the course of an eight-hour day is 85 decibels (just above the average volume of the NYC subway). At 91 dB (a hair dryer), that time decreases to two hours. At 106 dB (about the level of a rock concert), you’ve got less than four minutes. In other words, the louder the sound you’re experiencing, the less time you’ve got before bad things can happen. And once you’ve hit your daily threshold, you’ll be putting your ears at risk. This adds up fast. Two hours in traffic, plus four hours drowning out coworkers with your headphones, plus a movie could equal maxing out your day’s noise dosage.

An illustration of the anatomy of the inner ear, showing how sound enters the ear and triggers nerve activity.
Volume + duration = damage. After hours of exposure, even a few decibels above 85 dB can cause the ear’s hearing-related cells to become overwhelmed with waste and die. Illustration: Kim Ku

To add to the problem, we don’t always notice when sounds are getting too loud to be safe. Like being unable to smell your own perfume, our bodies gradually adapt to the noises around us. So in order for something to feel louder in an already loud environment, we increasingly need to up the volume. For example: Have you ever turned on your TV in the morning, and it seems astonishingly loud? It didn’t seem that loud the night before, right? Dr. Brian Fligor, founder and president of Boston Audiology Consultants, Inc., and chair of the WHO’s Make Listening Safe Task Force says this volume-creep effect is why that happens. After a day of traffic, the subway, music, a bar, a sporting event … your brain needs your TV to be blaring for your ears to feel like the volume is up. It’s like the old adage about boiling a frog by slowly increasing the temperature of the water. You don’t notice that everything has been getting turned up until it could be too late. If you want to know more, we talk about this in greater detail in our Best Kids Headphones guide.

So what does this all mean? You may already have some hearing damage and not know it. According to a 2018 report by the Hearing Loss Association of America, approximately 48 million Americans have some degree of hearing loss, and 12.5 percent of kids between the ages of 6 and 19 have hearing loss as a result of listening to loud music. The World Health Organization estimates that by 2050 one in every ten people globally will have disabling hearing loss. Note the terminology here: not merely some hearing loss, but disabling hearing loss. And one peer-reviewed study found that often adults under 30 who think hearing loss is no big deal have “significantly more deteriorated hearing … than the other subjects.”

How you can avoid becoming a statistic

First of all, protect. If you are going to be somewhere that you know is loud, wear earplugs. Not all earplugs are created equal. Some are made to muffle everything significantly, like our recommendation for sleeping. Others, like our concert-earplug pick from Loop offer less reduction, just taking the edge off the volume, so you can hear more than with foam earplugs. I use this kind for concerts, nightclubs, sporting events, even group exercise classes at the gym! Don’t laugh, I took a measurement in one of my spin classes, and the volume sat around 90 dB the entire hour!

Second, keep an eye on the volume at which you listen to music and movies, as well as the duration. The WHO recommends listening at no more than roughly 60 percent of mobile-device volume for no more than 60 minutes at a time. (This is particularly important to keep in mind in the US, because unlike the EU (PDF), the US has no laws about how loud your audio devices can be, only unenforceable guidelines. Again, we often assume that if a product is for sale, it must be safe to use. But that’s not always the case, so better to err on the side of safety.) This 60/60 recommendation applies to both kids and adults. So every hour or so, take a break. Get up, walk around, give your ears some silence. If you use an iPhone, iPod Touch, or Apple Watch, set up the Headphone Notifications to be alerted when your volume consumption has exceeded safe limits. Apple Watch users running Watch OS6 or later can also enable the “Noise” app notifications, which will factor in environmental loudness to your weekly noise exposure diet.

Third, consider new gear. If you ride the subway daily, fly long-haul often, or work in a noisy environment, you may want to consider noise-cancelling or noise-isolating headphones. By blocking out the noise around you, you won’t need to compete by turning up your music. If you have a child in your life, you’ll absolutely want to invest in some volume-limiting headphones for kids.

If you are already experiencing some hearing loss, consider a PSAP, or personal sound amplification product. These devices are becoming more common due to the 2017 law that allows the sale of over-the-counter hearing aids. However, bear in mind, there isn’t any safety regulation on these devices yet. Depending on the research involved in a given product’s development, there may be varying levels of accuracy and safety. This also applies to headphones that test and adjust to your hearing via an included app, like these from Nura, Beyerdynamic, and MEE Audio.

Close up of a person wearing a personal sound amplification ear piece.
PSAP, or personal sound amplification products, can be helpful to those already experiencing mild hearing loss. Photo: Rozette Rago

How phone and audio companies can help

This may sound like a lot to keep track of, but in a time when our smartphones and smart watches can track all kinds of daily activities, there’s no reason why noise consumption can’t be one of them. When we first published this article in 2018, I asked Dr. Fligor how the phone and wearable manufacturers could contribute to the solution. He suggested that all a smartphone or device needs to do is:

  1. Track your listening habits like tracking your steps, and suggest safer options. Dr. Fligor recommended that a device “monitor a user’s listening level over time (the “dose”) and compare the individual’s documented listening behavior to the standards on hearing loss risk from the scientific literature.”
  2. Send alerts if you are reaching unsafe volume or duration. Anyone who has “closed their circles” on an Apple Watch gets how this could work. Dr. Fligor added, “There should be a max output limit,” and that “a standard to define an upper max output will serve as a cap, but this is not the focus. Maximum output level-limiting is not an appropriate method for reducing hearing loss risk from user personal audio systems (headphones, etc.) because it ignores the fact that hearing is damaged from sound levels over time.”

Adults don’t need our car’s speed limited at 55 miles per hour, we just need a speedometer that lets us know we are going too fast, assuming we understand the consequences of exceeding that limit. Meanwhile, parental controls can help protect little ones. Since that 2018 interview, Apple has done nearly exactly that. The combination of the company’s Noise Alert for Apple Watch and Headphone Notifications for iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, and Apple Watch allows Apple users to track the combination of environmental exposure and headphone loudness in the Health App. When you reach your safe exposure limits, the app will ping you via notifications and automatically lower your headphone volume to 50 percent. However, this data doesn’t yet apply to laptops or desktops signed into your iCloud account, so you’ll still need to be mindful of listening levels while studying or working. Hopefully, Apple’s progress will encourage other tech companies to follow suit.

Until then, think of this process as a “sound diet.” A piece of cake is okay once in a while, but cake for every meal isn’t good for you. Keep track of your listening habits and make healthy choices, and you’ll be able to hear everything you love for a long time to come.

Hafta Ichi
Source: The NY Times
Keyword: Is Your Hearing at Risk? Here’s What You Can Do

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