Despite what you may have heard, there's no boom in deafness

By Carolyn Butler
Tuesday, March 9, 2010

When I was growing up, one of my mother's favorite admonitions -- along with "If you keep making that face, it's going to freeze that way" and "Don't sit too close to the television or you're going to need glasses" -- was the classic "Turn that music down, or you'll go deaf."

I hate to admit it, but lately I find myself asking friends to repeat themselves during cellphone conversations or to speak up over dinner in a bustling restaurant. Was Mom right? Could blaring Duran Duran and Wham on my Walkman for hours on end really have caused irreparable damage?

Maybe, but it's still open for debate. Although parents have been predicting that loud music would destroy the ears of each new generation, um, forever, new research suggests that hearing loss is actually on the decline. According to a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in January, the odds of hearing loss are 31 percent lower, overall, for baby boomers than for their parents. Researchers tested close to 5,300 people of various ages in Beaver Dam, Wis., beginning in 1993 to see who could hear different tones and then compared the level of impairment in one or both ears across birth cohorts. This allowed them to make comparisons between generations. For example, 36.4 percent of men now in their early 60s, or born between 1945 and 1949, have a hearing impairment, compared with 58.1 percent of those born between 1930 and 1935, who were tested when they were in their early 60s.

"The study shows that the prevalence of hearing loss at any given age is getting lower with different generations -- that we're retaining good hearing for longer than our parents and grandparents," says University of Wisconsin at Madison professor Karen Cruickshanks, a co-author of the study. This suggests that hearing impairment is not solely determined by genetics and that the environment and lifestyle play a role, says Cruickshanks. She speculates that the move to quieter, white-collar jobs from more-industrial pursuits, regulations on workplace noise and increased antibiotic use, among other things, have all improved people's hearing in recent decades.

The press release for this study announced that "Baby Boomers Survived Rock-n-Roll Era With Hearing Intact," which made for some great headlines, especially given the widely held belief that concerts, boomboxes, headphones and now MP3 players and their ear buds have slowly been destroying our hearing. But doubters point out that this research doesn't specifically address noise-induced hearing loss, which is either caused by a single exposure to extremely loud sounds such as an explosion or by repeated exposure to loud or very loud sounds, such as blaring music.

"Are we seeing better hearing [in this study]? Slightly. But does that infer that modern personal music devices don't damage your hearing? We can't say that from this research," since it didn't track individual participants' noise exposure, says Andrew Griffith, scientific director and chief of the otolaryngology branch at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders in Bethesda. Also, he said, tone testing doesn't necessarily pick up noise-induced hearing loss, particularly at the higher frequencies. "Listening to anything too loud, for too long, can damage your hearing," he says. "There is a well- documented, accepted relationship between noise exposure and hearing loss."

In fact, common guidelines, including OSHA standards, recognize that noises above 85 decibels can be unsafe. "But the risk is proportional to the length of time you're exposed," says Griffith, "so as you start increasing the intensity of the noise, the duration of what's thought to be a safe exposure decreases." He notes that firearms, firecrackers, NASCAR races and riding on a motorcycle all fall into the dangerous category -- but so can everyday household items such as lawnmowers, leaf blowers, certain power tools and even vacuums, if you use them for long enough. And I think the Who's Pete Townshend, for one, who recently announced he may quit the rock band because of another bout of tinnitus -- a ringing or buzzing in the ears that can be caused by loud noise -- will attest that playing in a band and attending rock concerts are also potentially problematic.

It's not just legendary guitarists who run some risks. Linda Jacobs-Condit, coordinator of audiology services at the Speech and Hearing Center at George Washington University, says that, depending on volume and duration, the harm caused by very loud music can either be temporary, lasting up to 48 hours, or more permanent: "If you go to a hard-rock concert, and it's really loud and your ears are ringing when you go home or you feel like you've got cotton in your ear, that's not as worrisome as someone who listens to blaring music at top volume, day in, day out, who is more likely to have permanent damage to the receptor cells in the inner ear."

MP3 players are a particular concern, she said. "The output loudness levels can get pretty high -- 100 to 120 decibels -- which has the potential to cause permanent damage to the inner ear within 10 minutes at the louder end." It's even worse when you're using ear buds, which are inserted into the ear canal and lead to greater sound exposure than regular headphones.

Some of us are more at risk than others. Several studies indicate that both noise-induced hearing loss and hearing loss that just happens as you age "are caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors," explains Griffith. NIDCD statistics show that some 15 percent of Americans between the ages of 20 and 69 -- or 26 million people -- have hearing loss from overexposure to loud sounds at work or play, and that more than 30 million of us are exposed to harmful noise levels on a regular basis.

"Some people are very resistant to noise-induced hearing loss, some are more susceptible," says Griffith, "and we have no good way of knowing where you stand, except from a prior history of noise exposure and hearing loss, but by that point, it can be too late."

Thus, he counsels, it's simply better for everyone to protect themselves from the start. This includes lots of common-sense measures, such as turning down the volume on your iPod, using speakers rather than headgear to listen to your music every once in a while, and moving away from any noise that's loud enough to hurt your ears -- even if it's a particularly rocking show -- or using hearing protection such as earplugs. In addition, both Griffith and Jacobs-Condit recommend that anyone with concerns about hearing loss get their ears professionally tested.

So I guess I'll be making an appointment, to figure out how much damage George Michael, Simon Le Bon and other big-haired '80s superstars really wrought -- and whether Mom was right -- once and for all.

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