I am well aware that I am no longer part of the younger generation. Years ago, my parents thought that the Beatles music was obnoxious “noise,” and I suppose, compared to Frank Sinatra, it was. I would put on a vinyl record and crank up the volume. Listening to loud music and attending concerts has been proven to be extremely harmful to our long-term hearing. Today, young people are at an even greater risk for hearing loss, due to the increasing popularity of individual listening devices and earbuds. Earbuds are the very tiny headphones that fit directly into the outer ear. However, they don’t do a good job at filtering outside noise, so wearers often tend to turn up the volume to compensate. Because they are worn so close to the ear canal, earbuds deliver higher decibels than do other listening methods.
The eardrum transfers sound to the inner ear, where hair cells transmit vibrations to the nerves. We are born with a fixed but ample supply of these hair cells, nevertheless exposure to loud noise over time harms them, leading to hearing loss. Note that when these hair cells are gone, they cannot repair or regrow, and the loss is cumulative over our lifetime.
How big is this problem? Estimates range that from 12-20% of school-aged children suffer some degree of hearing loss due to exposure to loud noise, a rate 30% higher than in the 1980s and 1990s. It’s more common among boys than girls, and among teens from poor families. Overall, about one-third of hearing loss is preventable!
The decibel is the unit used to measure sound. The human ear is so sensitive that it can hear sounds ranging from a fingertip brushing lightly over the skin, to a roaring jet engine. In terms of power, the sound of the jet engine is about 1,000,000,000,000 times stronger than the smallest audible sound. Therefore, the decibel scale was designed to increase geometrically. The smallest audible sound (near total silence) is 0 decibels (dB). A sound 10 times more powerful is 10 dB. A sound 100 times more powerful than near total silence is 20 dB. A sound 1,000 times more powerful than near total silence is 30 dB. For example, a whisper could be about 15 dB; normal conversation 60 dB; a car horn 110 dB; a rock concert or a jet engine 120 dB; and a gunshot or firecracker 140 dB.
Anything under 85 decibels is considered safe. That’s about the volume of a kitchen blender or hair dryer. Because earbuds are worn inside of the outer ear, they are capable of transmitting sound far louder than music in a room, car, or concert, and even much louder than headphones. Individual listening devices are capable of producing 120 decibels. It can take as little as an hour to cause hearing loss.
What can be done to prevent this kind of hearing loss?
· Take a break; the length of time exposed to loud music or other noise makes a difference. Monitor your listening level and how long you are listening to personal listening devices. If others can hear the music from the earbuds that you are wearing, then the volume is way too high. Try the 60/60 rule: Never turn the volume past 60%, and listen to music with ear buds for a maximum of 60 minutes per day.
·Be careful not to fall asleep while listening to loud music, especially when wearing ear buds. Whether awake or asleep, you are still at risk.
·Regardless of the source, on the job or not, avoid volumes higher than 85 decibels. Note that saws, drills, and motorcycles can easily be loud enough to cause permanent hearing damage. Ensure that your jobsite has an effective program, meeting federal or state regulations, to adequately protect your hearing.
·Wear protective gear when you know that you will be exposed to excessive noise. Earplugs, earmuffs, or noise reduction headphones can be effective.
There are, of course, other causes of hearing loss that have nothing to do with loud noise causing damage to the hair cells of the inner ear. For example, some people tend to build up earwax, which is easily removed. Certain medications can cause hearing loss, including some antibiotics, cancer-fighting drugs, and high doses of aspirin. Smoking results in decreased blood flow to the inner ear, increasing the likelihood of hearing loss. Add this to the long list of reasons to quit!
Be sure to discuss any sudden hearing loss with your doctor. Have your hearing checked regularly, especially if you have close relatives with hearing loss, have trouble hearing conversations, are exposed to loud noises on a regular basis, or experience frequent ringing in your ears.
Dr. Alan Frischer is former chief of staff and former chief of medicine at Downey Regional Medical Center. Write to him in care of this newspaper at 8301 E. Florence Ave., Suite 100, Downey, CA 90240.
Published: Sept. 11, 2014 - Volume 13 - Issue 22