Hearing Loss in Young Adults

The Alarming Increase of Hearing Loss in Young Adults

In practice, the gradual deterioration in one’s ability to hear is almost inevitable. Known as presbycusis, it is a process that tends to start near the end of the third decade of life, and then progress at a rate that, more often than not, is unlikely to present much of a problem until the retirement years. Today, however, the image of a hearing aid as something peculiar to the elderly has changed, due to an alarming increase in the incidence of hearing loss in young adults, and even among a growing number of adolescent and pre-teenage children.

One does not need to look very far for an explanation. In fact, this worrisome departure from the norm can be attributed almost exclusively to exposure to excessively loud noise. More specifically, it can be blamed on a preference for music and the sound effects that accompany online games when played at the highest possible volume. The effect of prolonged exposure to loud noise is damage to the delicate hair cells that convert mechanical vibrations into nerve impulses which the brain perceives as sounds.

Noise levels are measured in decibels. To put this into perspective, a normal conversation generates around 60 dB, while a domestic refrigerator produces about 10 dB less, and a washing machine racks up about 10 dB more. Levels of 85 dB and above will eventually cause permanent hearing loss and in the case of young adults, the levels they are exposed to are frequently a great deal higher.

At the 85-dB level, a typical working day of 8 hours is sufficient to cause irreversible damage. However, at a live rock concert or a nightclub, the noise level will frequently exceed 100 dB, and given that the decibel scale is a logarithmic one, an increase of just 3 dB actually amounts to a doubling of sound intensity. At these volumes, just a single hour of exposure can take its toll on both the musicians and those in the audience. Even worse news is that the effect of excess noise is cumulative, so each additional exposure will add to the existing hearing loss in young adults, as well as anyone else who may repeatedly be exposed to this intensity of sound, whether in the workplace or as a result of their recreational choices.

Not all of the fault can be attributed to rock concerts, clubs, and other outdoor activities. A lot of the damage is being sustained at home and right under the noses of the unsuspecting parents. Here the culprits are the iPod, the smartphone, and other portable music players or, to be more precise, the in-the-ear buds that enable young adults to listen in private and without being told repeatedly to keep the volume down. When played for hours at full volume, these devices are major contributors to the increase in hearing loss in young adults all over the world.

While long overdue legislation is now forcing manufacturers to limit the volume capabilities of their portable music devices, it has not been implemented universally, so although this particular source of risk may have been reduced, it has not yet been eliminated. When it comes to live concerts and nightclubs, enforcing any form of restrictive legislation seems likely to be even more difficult. So, what can be done to protect young adults from hearing loss?

Knowing the source of the danger is perhaps half of the battle. Parents need to be far more vigilant in monitoring how children use their portable music devices and ensure that they have some form of acoustic protection when attending live concerts. For these events, there are now some very effective earplugs that can help to attenuate the sound to safer levels. Sadly, in many cases, some damage may have already occurred. Where this is suspected, revealing the results of their hearing tests could be a good way to discourage young adults from risking any further loss. You can be sure few of them would be happy to be seen as in need of a hearing aid.

In practice, many already have such a need and soon, even more will, which underlines the importance of audiometric testing. When signs of impairment, such as a frequent need to have others repeat themselves when chatting, are noticed, it’s time for action. There’s no better place to get the relevant professional help for adults, young or old, with suspected hearing loss than an Ear Institute clinic.
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