Turn down for what: WHO releases hearing loss report

By Gabriel Naccarato / For The Pitt News

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At the one concert Mackenzie Brown treats herself to each month, she focuses more on enjoying the night than thinking about wearing protective earplugs.

“I’m willing, but I would only consider [wearing them] if I went to concerts more than once a month,” she said. 

While not at concerts, Brown, like many college students, listens to music through earbuds at moderate volumes ­— but a recent study by the World Health Organization (WHO) said even that may be too loud. 

In February, the WHO published a report on hearing loss around the world. The report estimated that more than 1.1 billion people, ages 12 to 35, are at risk for severe hearing loss in their lifetime. Previous reports have marked the causes and effects of hearing loss, such as the 1974 report “The Deaf Population of the United States,” but previous reports from the WHO have not estimated as severe of estimated hearing loss levels. 

Loud music and environmental noises — including nightclubs, bars and sporting events — are the main factors of hearing loss, the report said. These locations emit noise levels of roughly 100 decibels, which is safe for no more than 15 minutes, according to the WHO’s report.

Aside from public noise, personal listening has become a major factor of hearing loss, too.

Young people’s frequent exposure to loud music is not a new hit ­— the introduction of the MP3 player has increased people’s accessibility to private listening, according to a 2011 study from the International Journal of Audiology titled “Preferred listening levels of personal listening devices in young teenagers.” 

The report found that 80 percent of teens use personal listening devices regularly. Of this total, 21 percent listen for one to four hours per day, and 8 percent listen for more than four hours straight. The study found a quarter of the participants to be at severe risk for hearing loss.

Even though Brown, a sophomore studying applied developmental psychology, said she turns the music down from moderate to low volumes when she studies, she may be part of the 50 percent of young adults who listen to their music at an unsafe volume. 

500 million teenagers and young adults listen to music at 85 decibels or higher, which puts young people at risk, according to Etienne Krug, a director involved with injury prevention at the WHO.

“They should be aware that once you lose your hearing, it won’t come back,” Krug said in a release. 

Debra Hast, the American Sign Language department coordinator at Pitt, who has been deaf since birth but can hear people while conversing one-on-one, gave a grim reality of late deafness, and said the long-coming effects of too-loud music are still surprising and tragic to sufferers.

“It’s shocking to lose your hearing,” Hast, who currently uses a hearing aid, said. “You feel like your life is in a fishbowl.” 

Sheila Pratt, a professor in the communication science and disorders department, said noise exposure damages hair cells, which are the sensory end-organ for the auditory system. 

As hair cells become increasingly damaged over time, the auditory system will experience harmful secondary effects, including hearing loss, Pratt said.

Pratt recommended several methods to reduce the risk of approaching hearing loss. 

“Turn the volume down if you can, wear ear protection if you can’t. Reduce the duration of noise exposures,” Pratt said.

She advised against smoking, because it makes ears more sensitive to noise, and said that maintaining a nutritious diet and getting eight hours of sleep each night are important to preserving hearing. 

With one-seventh of the world at risk for hearing loss, the WHO report said it’s important to prevent hearing loss before it occurs.

“I didn’t know [the numbers] were that high,” Hast said. “One-seventh of the world losing its hearing, that’s a scary thought.”

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