If your image of noise-induced hearing loss is a lifelong factory worker, think again. Currently, noise-induced hearing loss affects about a quarter of all Americans between the ages of 20 and 64.
Our world is getting louder as technology generally and amplification technology specifically evolves. Recently, the World Health Organization recognized hearing loss as an impending global problem. They attribute a heightened sense of risk to the reasons stated previously in addition to the rise of personal devices. Whichever way you come at it, noise is a rising risk for hearing health.
How We Invite In Risky Noise
Personal audio device use has skyrocketed to become almost ubiquitous, and prolonged listening to loud music or entertainment through earbuds or headphones puts hearing health at risk. This includes smartphones, tablets and laptops. We now spend considerably more time online and plugged into these devices. It’s not unusual to go to school, work or socialize for hours online. Many people stream movies, television and music routinely connected via headphones or earbuds. Even gamers often use headphones or headsets to deliver sound directly into their ears.
And it’s not just the online world that’s gotten louder. Engaging in leisure activities like watching athletic events, concerts, or performances without the correct hearing protection might result in temporary or permanent hearing loss. The average decibel readings of dance clubs or nightlife establishments significantly exceed those deemed safe. Even fifteen minutes of exposure to such volumes carry high hearing health risk, while a majority of customers spend considerably longer within them.
How Noise Hurts Hearing
Our ears evolved over thousands of years without mechanized amplification. Today, the human ear can hear leaves rustling (20 decibels) and a person shouting (around 80-85 decibels). For context, most conversations fall between 55-60 decibels. Most of the time, we want to keep noise exposure to below 85 decibels, a challenge that is becoming increasingly difficult, a range that carries no risk to our hearing.
We can withstand louder noises without incurring much risk if it is for a short period of time. As the volume or intensity of noise goes up, our window of time in which we can safely experience such noise lowers. So while it’s okay to see a five minute action scene at the movie theater with volumes in the 100 decibel range, the health of our hearing would be impacted if that scene lasted for longer than 15 minutes.
Noise-Induced Hearing Loss
When our ears are exposed to too-loud sounds, the health and vitality of inner ear cells declines. This can happen all at once, in a life-changing event such as an explosion, when the damage will be immediately apparent. It can also happen more subtly and over time, with repeated exposure of slightly too loud noises. You might not even be aware the sounds are dangerous, as it generally requires an extremely loud sound, between 120-140 decibels to elicit pain in the ears.
Excessive noise wears away at the inner ear cells until their number is reduced. This matters because these cells are responsible for receiving noise from the world around us and turning it into sound information that the brain can translate into meaning. They don’t repair or reproduce, so when we lose these cells, we collect less noise and send less sound information to the brain. We experience this as hearing loss.
Why Hearing Health Matters
Hearing loss is inherently a condition that obstructs communication. One of the first symptoms is difficulty with speech clarity, or understanding what people are saying. When the brain receives less sound information, it begins to omit some of the sound frequencies within conversation, so it might sound like people are mumbling. It’s like trying to solve a puzzle with a bunch of missing pieces, making the brain work harder than it used to.
This can lead to a number of other, ancillary issues. Depression, fatigue and a sense of isolation are commonly linked to hearing loss. What’s more, there is a strong link between untreated hearing loss and cognitive decline, leading experts to recommend intervention in hearing loss as a primary way to avoid future dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease diagnoses.
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