Writer David Owen remembers the circumstances leading to his hearing loss:
My ears ring all the time—a condition called tinnitus. I blame China, because the ringing started, a decade ago, while I was recovering from a monthlong cold that I’d contracted while breathing the filthy air in Beijing, and whose symptoms were made worse by changes in cabin pressure during the long flight home. Tinnitus is almost always accompanied by hearing loss.
Tinnitus isn’t curable and Owen’s hearing loss isn’t recoverable:
Unlike taste buds and olfactory receptors, which the body replenishes continuously, the most delicate elements of the human auditory system don’t regenerate. The National Center for Health Statistics has estimated that thirty-seven million American adults have lost some hearing, and, according to the National Academy of Sciences, hearing loss is, worldwide, the “fifth leading cause of years lived with disability.” Hearing problems can lead to social isolation and cognitive decline, both of which make getting older—itself a cause of hearing loss—seem worse than it does already.
Sustained exposure to loud noise — 85-90 decibels and higher — is, in addition to advancing age, the principle cause of permanent hearing loss. Noise from loud music at concerts or from our headphones and ear buds; from engines on cars, trucks, motorcycles, lawnmowers, boats, helicopters, and airplanes; from power tools (drills and saws) and home appliances (blenders and food processors); and from fireworks and firearms are some of the more common sources of noise which, over time, can be deafening. Many of these activities are occupational (members of the military are especially vulnerable) and many are recreational, but all should summon the use of properly fitting and effective ear protection among those who are exposed.
Sensitivity to high frequency sounds is usually the first area on the hearing spectrum to be affected and lost from loud noises. Noisy electronic media has been a concern of parents for decades. Trisha Korioth says pediatricians are also worried:
Kids expose themselves to noise through electronic media that often is louder than what is allowed by law in a workplace, according to Joseph F. Hagan Jr., M.D., FAAP, co-editor of the AAP Bright Futures Guidelines. “We know that does cause problems with high frequency hearing loss…”
One in six adolescents has high frequency hearing loss, according to a study. This type of hearing loss is caused by exposure to loud noises, such as music played through headphones.
The AAP recommends that parents and pediatricians educate children and teenagers about the risks to their hearing when they listen to music at live events or through audio speakers, earbuds, and headphones:
- The personal digital audio player should be set at approximately 60% of maximum (maximum volume is about 100-110 decibels), and listening should be limited to 60 minutes daily.
- The user should be able to hear conversations going on around him or her while listening to the music.
- Earbuds generally have tighter seals with the ear canal than do headphones, so sound transfer may be more efficient with earbuds.
- Ringing or a feeling of fullness in the ear definitely means the music was too loud.
It’s important that parents teach their children to be aware of noise and protect their ears starting at a very young age. As always when it comes to media, parents should model good habits:
As a parent, it is critical that you practice what you preach when it comes to safe listening. Little ears are listening.
Parents can also help their older children and teenagers choose their listening equipment wisely:
Certain features or products may help with volume control. Noise-cancelling headphones are often a good idea, as kids won’t need to turn the volume up to drown out outside noise. Look for ear buds or headphones that fit the child well, which will prevent sound leakage and again reduce the need to turn the volume up to hear.
Very often, a person doesn’t realize they have significant hearing loss until it becomes debilitating. Parents should let their pediatrician know sooner rather than later if they have concerns about their child’s hearing before their kids volunteer any complaints themselves.