Hearing loss: 1 billion people are at risk from unsafe listening


Turning down the noise isn’t just for disgruntled parents — a new study has found it could protect more than 1 billion people at risk of hearing loss.

When it comes to phones, music, movies and shows, it’s common for adolescents and young adults to listen too loudly and for too long, according to the study published Tuesday in the journal BMJ Global Health.

“We estimate that 0.67 to 1.35 billion individuals between the ages of 12 and 34 worldwide are likely to practice unsafe listening practices,” and are therefore at risk for hearing loss, lead study author Lauren Dillard said via email. Dillard is a consultant to the World Health Organization and a postdoctoral fellow at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Exposure to sound at too high a volume can fatigue the sensory cells and structures in the ear, Dillard said. If this continues for too long, they can become permanently damaged, resulting in hearing loss, tinnitus, or both.

Researchers conducted a meta-analysis of scientific papers on unsafe listening practices published between 2000 and 2021 in three databases, the study said.

According to the research, the unsafe practices were tracked based on the use of headphones and attendance at entertainment venues, such as concerts, bars and clubs.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention limits safe noise levels to about 85 decibels for 40 hours a week. If you listen for just 2½ hours a day, that’s the equivalent of about 92 decibels, the study said.

Connected to a smartphone downloaded with MP3 audio files, listeners often opt for volumes up to 105 decibels, and venues often range from 104 to 112 decibels, the study said.

Fortunately, policies, companies and individuals can take steps to encourage safe listening and protect hearing from damage over time, Dillard said.

The study’s analysis was rigorous and the evidence is compelling that hearing loss should be a public health priority, said De Wet Swanepoel, a professor of audiology at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. Swanepoel was not involved in the investigation.

“Music is a gift to be enjoyed for a lifetime,” said Swanepoel, who is also editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Audiology. “The message is to enjoy your music, but in a safe way.”

Whether you’re listening on your own device or at a concert, Dillard warned that ringing in your ears is a good sign the music was too loud.

However, there are ways to prevent the damage before you notice the effects. Some devices allow people to track their listening level in the device settings, she said. Some will even warn you if you’ve been listening too loud for too long.

“If your device says you’re listening at unsafe levels, turn the volume down and listen to music for a shorter amount of time,” Dillard said via email.

Experts can’t say for sure which headphones are safest to listen to, Dillard said, but she did recommend using headphones that reduce background noise, which can help keep the volume at a lower level because you can hear the sound around you don’t have to drown out.

But you don’t always have control over the volume rocker. If you’re at a loud concert or venue, you can protect your hearing by standing farther away from the speakers and, if possible, taking breaks away from the noise, Dillard said.

And it always helps to use some ear protection — even the foam earplugs will do, she added.

“Hearing is the sense that connects us to the people we love,” Swanepoel said in an email. “Taking care of our hearing is key to maintaining healthy relationships and overall health and well-being. Primary prevention in young adults is critical to prevent earlier-onset and accelerated age-related hearing loss.”

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