Hearing loss occurring at much younger ages

TAU researchers: One in four teens is in danger due to personal listening devices.

hearing device in ear 311 (photo credit: Bloomberg)
hearing device in ear 311
(photo credit: Bloomberg)
MP3 players and other electronic devices that funnel noise directly into the ears are a serious health hazard – especially to teenagers, according to a new study at Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Medical Faculty.
Users listen to crystal-clear tunes at high volume for hours at a time, a significant rise in sound quality compared to the days of the Walkman. But, says Prof. Chava Muchnik of TAU’s department of communication disorders and colleagues, these advances have also resulted in personal listening devices causing harm to hearing, just as former US president Bill Clinton lost some of his hearing in middle age by playing a saxophone as a young man.
But today’s exposure is almost incessant.
One in four teens is in danger of early hearing loss as a direct result of these listening habits, says Muchnik and her team, who studied teens and music listening habits, and took acoustic measurements of their preferred listening levels.
The results, recently published in the International Journal of Audiology, demonstrate clearly that teens have harmful music-listening habits.
“In 10 or 20 years, it will be too late for a generation of young people suffering from hearing problems much earlier than expected from natural aging,” says Muchnik.
Noise causes damage to the tiny hairs in the inner ear that enables it to hear, and continuous exposure to loud noise is a slow and progressive process that many people don’t notice, Muchnik says. Young people’s hearing can thus deteriorate as early as their 30s – much earlier than past generations.
The first stage of the study included 289 participants aged 13 to 17, who were asked questions about their habits on personal listening devices (PLDs) – specifically, their preferred listening levels and the duration of their listening. In the second stage, measurements of these listening levels were performed on 74 teens in both quiet and noisy environments.
The measured volume levels were used to calculate the potential risk to hearing according to damage risk criteria laid out by industrial health and safety regulations.
The study’s findings are worrisome, says Muchnik.
Eighty percent of teens use their PLDs regularly, with 21% listening from one to four hours daily and 8% listening more than four hours consecutively.
Taken together with the acoustic measurement results, the data indicate that a quarter of the participants are at severe risk for hearing loss.
Industry-related health and safety regulations are the only benchmark for measuring the harm caused by continuous exposure to high volume noise. Yet there is a real need for additional music-risk criteria to prevent music-induced hearing loss, Muchnik says. In the meantime, she recommends that manufacturers adopt the European standards that limit the output of PLDs to 100 decibels. Currently, maximum decibel levels can differ from model to model, but some can go up to 129 decibels.
Steps can also be taken by schools and parents, she says. Some school boards are developing programs to increase awareness of hearing health, such as the “Dangerous Decibels” program in Oregon schools, which provides early education on the subject. Teens could also choose over-the-ear headphones instead of the ear buds that commonly come with an iPod.
The researchers will soon focus on the music listening habits of younger children, including preteens, and the development of advanced technological solutions to enable the safe use of PLDs.