Are ear buds bad for your hearing? Researchers aren't prepared to say a definitive "yes," but evidence is mounting.
A new national study has found that 1 in 5 adolescents now suffers some sort of hearing impairment. A likely culprit: a combination of ear buds and loud music.
A new national study has found that 1 in 5 adolescents now suffers some sort of hearing impairment. A likely culprit: a combination of ear buds and loud music. iStockphoto.com
In the Aug. 18 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers from the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston analyzed federal data collected from national yearly surveys of the health of American citizens.
They looked at the prevalence of hearing loss among U.S. adolescents between 1988 and 1994 and compared that with the prevalence of hearing loss between 2005 and 2006. They found a 31 percent increase in hearing loss among those between 12 and 19 years old. Researchers say this means 1 in 5 adolescents now suffers some sort of hearing impairment.
While the hearing loss is described as only slight or mild, earlier studies have found that even mild hearing loss can negatively affect academic achievement and social interaction.
Dr. Gary Curhan of Brigham and Women's Hospital was one of the researchers who analyzed the government data. "They may be able to hear that somebody's whispering but may not be able to understand it," he says.
Dr. Alison Grimes, manager of the audiology clinic at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, says it has been known for centuries that loud noise damages the ear. For example, musicians have a greater risk of hearing loss whether they play rock or classical. As for the audience, she says, "We know that when we go to a concert and walk out three hours later, our ears feel full and stuffy and 'ring.' Those are signs of temporary and possibly permanent damage of exposure to loud noise."
Grimes adds that shooting a gun, working with a loud chain saw or riding a loud motorcycle can also cause temporary or permanent hearing loss. As for today's teens, researchers didn't look at why there has been an increase in hearing loss. But in Grimes' opinion, a likely culprit is the dangerous combination of ear buds and loud music.
"If you can hear the music coming from a teenager's ear buds, it's too loud," she says.
And for the teenager, the loud music is very likely destroying the tiny hairs in the inner ear that respond to particular pitches and help transmit sound to the brain. When pieces of that audio transmission are missing, then the brain can't interpret sound clearly and the individual has difficulty understanding speech.
Grimes says it has been clear for decades that the louder the noise and the longer you are hearing it, the greater the risk of hearing loss. That's why there are standards for noise on the job. And when the noise gets to a certain level, workers are required to wear ear protection and have annual hearing checkups.
But for loud music plugged into the ear, the research isn't clear yet.
However, Grimes has some recommendations. Lower the volume, she says. And if you must listen to loud music, at least turn it off for about 10-15 minutes every hour and give your ears a needed break.
For more specific guidance, Grimes suggests going to the American Academy of Audiology website.