In the last 15 to 20 years, personal stereos, often with the use of ear buds or headphones, have become prevalent in our culture, especially with teens. How many times have you walked by someone wearing these devices and could hear their music from many feet away?
The proportion of teens in the United States with slight hearing loss has increased 30% in the last 15 years, and the number with mild or worse hearing loss has increased 77%. Dr. Alison Grimes, manager of the audiology clinic at Ronald Reagan-UCLA Medical Center says, “Just because a hearing loss is slight does not mean it is insignificant, particularly when it is in the high frequencies.”
Research shows that children will have difficulty learning and keeping up academically when they can’t hear well. In the English language, soft high frequency sounds such as “s,” “t,” “f,” “sh,” and “th” carry a great deal of meaning, and for the sake of speech understanding, we need to be able to discern them. Unfortunately, these sounds are the first to be lost when there is noise in the background, like in a noisy classroom.
The use of a portable stereo is not the only contributing factor when it comes to hearing loss in younger children or for any age group. We live in a noisy world and are routinely exposed to damaging levels with lawn mowers, leaf blowers, car alarms, vacuum cleaners, concerts, and countless other sources. The level at which noise can cause permanent hearing loss begins at about 85 dB, typical of a hair dryer, food processor or kitchen blender. Even most restaurants are excessively noisy because proprietors believe that people will spend more on food and drink in a loud, bustling restaurant.
We have to remember that the ears are fragile and once we have hearing loss there is no way to reverse the damage. Damage to this delicate apparatus can result from both excessive volume and length of exposure to sound. Very loud noises, or chronic exposure to sound, even when it is not particularly loud, can wreak havoc on the tiny hair cells in our inner ear, causing them to become disarranged and to degenerate. We are born with a fixed number of hair cells and once they are dead they cannot be replaced, and therefore, auditory sensitivity is permanently lost. Usually our sensitivity to high frequency sounds is the first to go, followed by an inability to hear speech clearly.
The bottom line is, we all need to be aware of these noise sources, and turn down the volume to protect our ears. A good rule of thumb with portable listening devices is if other people can hear what you’re listening to, the volume is too high. As audiologists, we often have to remember to encourage the use of hearing protection in the presence of loud noises to all age groups. Unless we take steps now to protect to our ears, sooner or later many of us, and our children, will have difficulty understanding even ordinary speech. While countermeasures to aid hearing are available to us, preserving our hearing is the real first and most appropriate step in maintaining the ability to communicate.
Participate in our national organization, the American Academy of Audiology’s Campaign, “Turn it to the Left” in order to preserve our hearing from loud sounds.