Preventable hearing loss: why you should not take your hearing for granted
Hearing is important in many aspects of communication, health, and quality of life. Still, many people ignore the risks and turn up the volume on Spotify or fail to protect their hearing at music festivals. Lost hearing will not return, so why risk it?
I was diagnosed with significant hearing loss when I was five years old. My elementary school teacher noticed that I followed her orders slightly later than my peers, and it turned out that I hadn’t actually heard anything of what she was telling me. I just guessed and adjusted my behaviour to my surroundings, which meant that if my peers suddenly started cleaning their desks, I thought I should probably do that too. My skills to compensate for my hearing loss improved through elementary school into young adulthood. By the time I first started going out to bars and nightclubs, lip reading enabled me to communicate when background noise and poor articulation of my peers prevented me from properly keeping up with a conversation by hearing. Also, just imitating someone’s facial expression turned out the be a very good reaction to a story I did not hear a single word of. It takes time to get used to and to cope with hearing loss, especially if you’re used to being able to hear – so let’s get to the facts.
Hearing loss: the facts
In 2018, I was one of the approximately 466 million people that have disabling hearing loss. The prevalence has been increasing since it was first reported by the World Health Organization in 1985 (from 1% to 6.1% of the total population). This is partly due to demographic changes as a result of global population growth and improved life expectancy, but that’s not the whole story. Occupational and recreational noise are considered the most common modifiable environmental cause of hearing loss among young adults and middle-aged adults.
The highest permissible level of noise exposure is 85 decibels, up to a maximum of 8 hours a day. To put this in perspective: a music festival, bar, or nightclub generally plays music at a volume of up to 112 decibels. Thus, if you want to prevent hearing damage, you should not be in such a place longer than 15 minutes without protection. As young adults and middle-aged adults frequently find themselves in situations where they are exposed such high levels of noise and loud sounds, it is not surprising that around 75% of them have reported suffering from hearing problems the day after a night out. A very unpleasant hangover. Moreover, preferred listening volume levels are remarkably high among young adults: almost 60% exceed the daily noise dose just by listening to music on their personal devices. Nevertheless, a relatively low number of young adults worry about hearing loss or wear earplugs to protect themselves from hearing damage. This indicates that awareness of the risks and consequences of loud noise is low. In fact, you may well be wondering now: what are the exact consequences?
The exact consequences and what we can do to prevent them
The most common consequence of prolonged exposure to high levels of noise is tinnitus (‘ringing ears’), which can either be temporary or permanent. However, noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) can manifest in many other ways, such as loss of perception of small ranges of frequencies or sensitivity to particular sounds. Inevitably, hearing loss has a substantial negative effect on interpersonal communication, but there’s more. Many studies have also shown a negative effect on quality of life, economic independence and psychological well-being, with consequences such as depression and loneliness. This is obviously no fun. What can we do to make young people more aware of the consequences of hearing loss and persuade them to turn to prevention, such as hearing protection and alternation of listening habits?
- Provide an essential guide and effective education on hearing damage to raise awareness, increase knowledge, and change attitudes and listening habits. Preferably with an interactive element. In Sweden, information campaigns that emphasized the prevention of damage by recreational noise exposure showed that Swedish adolescents were more likely to wear hearing protection after such a campaign.
- Be more specific and detailed about the consequences of hearing loss. Tinnitus (‘ringing ears’) is well known as a temporary symptom of exposure to loud noise, but many young adults are ignorant that it can evolve into permanent tinnitus or hearing impairment.
- Education should start at a younger age. The fact that NILD is most frequently reported in young adults and middle-aged adults implies that education should take place before attitudes and habits around noise exposure are formed. Education should ideally begin before an age of 14 years, as an increase of attendance at social events is shown from this age.
One last remark
Finally, let me point out that though I do not associate my hearing loss with limitations or negativity, it does make me feel more conscious of how precious and vulnerable your hearing is. Let’s not waste it unnecessarily.
Actually, that’s not completely true… my hearing loss has also made me feel conversationally awkward many, many times. On one occasion when I imitated someone’s facial expression, mistaking his phony, uncomfortable laugh for a genuine smile, I subsequently found out that I had smiled happily as he told me his grandma had just died. Trust me, you don’t want to be in that kind of situation.