Living in an increasingly digital world, we are connected to our electronic devices more than ever. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 1.1 billion young adults are at risk of hearing loss caused by unsafe use of personal audio devices as well as absorbing loud noise in entertainment venues. Specifically, according to WHO, among people between the ages 12-35:
- 50% listen to unsafe levels of sound through personal audio devices (ex. smartphone)
- 40% are exposed to potentially damaging levels of sound at nightclubs, bars, and sporting events
WHO has launched a campaign, Make Listening Safe, to bring needed attention to this significant risk to hearing health. Key points of this campaign to make listening safe for all include: understanding noise induced hearing loss as well as knowing what you can do to lower the risk!
Noise Induced Hearing Loss
Hearing loss is a pervasive chronic health condition that millions of people navigate. There are several factors that can contribute to impaired hearing including: existing medical conditions, genetic history, aging, and exposure to loud noise. Noise induced hearing loss is the result of absorbing harmful levels of noise. Sound is measured in units referred to as decibels and noise above 85 decibels is considered potentially dangerous for our hearing.
- 0 dB: near total silence
- 30dB: whispering
- 50dB: normal conversation
- 80 dB: city traffic, vacuum cleaner
- 100 dB: hand drill, motorcycle
We are often easily (and regularly) exposed to sound above 85 dB: concerts, fireworks, plane taking off, passing a construction site, and the music we listen to using headphones. Consistent absorption of loud noise damages the hair cells in the inner ear.
These hair cells help translate soundwaves into electrical signals for the brain to process which is how we are able to make sense of what we hear. We have thousands of hair cells in each ear and these hair cells do not regenerate (unlike other types of cells). This means that any damage is permanent, affecting their capacity to carry out their function and resulting in noise induced hearing loss.
Impact of hearing loss
Hearing loss can drastically affect all aspects of a person’s life. Impaired hearing:
- Strains communication: people often experience tinnitus which is a buzzing or ringing noise in one or both ears, sounds are slurred or muffled, frequently asking others to repeat themselves and/or speak loudly or slowly etc. These symptoms make it challenging to follow entire conversations.
- Social withdrawal: engaging with others can be exhausting and leave a person feeling drained. This can lead to avoiding social interactions, gatherings, activities etc. Spending less time with family and friends impacts relationships and sense of community.
- Overall health decline: strained communication and isolation can take a toll on overall health by contributing to depression, anxiety, stress etc. Untreated hearing loss also increases the risk of cognitive decline, accidental injuries, and unemployment.
It is important to have your hearing assessed as well as be proactive about your hearing health by taking the measures to make listening safe.
Making Listening Safe
There are several ways that you can make listening safe, reducing your risk of developing hearing loss. A few useful tips are:
- Maintain low volume: when listening to music, watching television, listening to podcasts etc. you want to be sure that it is less than 85 dB. If you have to raise your voice for someone to hear you, or others have to shout to grab your attention, this is an indication that your volume may be too high.
- Use noise cancelling headphones: noise cancellation technology reduces background noise, allowing you to listen to music at lower levels of volume. This prevents you from having to increase the volume in environments that are louder.
- Wear protective gear: wearing earmuffs or earplugs when navigating loud environments is a useful way to protect your hearing. This type of gear serves as a barrier and prevents your ears from absorbing the loud noise you are around.
Limit time and take breaks: our ears and auditory system needs time to rest and rejuvenate from the constant stimulation we are absorbing. So, taking listening breaks, moving away from loud sounds, limiting daily use of personal audio devices etc. are useful strategies to reduce your exposure.