Hearing loss hits a younger generation – Tribune-Review
Updated 11 hours ago
Hearing loss, that’s an older person’s problem, right?
Think again. Noise, not age, is the leading cause of hearing loss. While hearing problems are common among older folks, damage from everyday noise is growing among younger Americans, including those in their teens and 20s.
The latest research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows some 40 million Americans ages 20 to 69 with hearing damage from everyday loud noise, including heavy traffic, noisy restaurants, rock concerts, sporting events and loud music via earbuds.
Among 12- to 19-year-olds, researchers estimate some 17 percent show evidence of noise-induced hearing loss in one or both ears.
Worse, many Americans don’t even realize their hearing has been affected. In the CDC’s analysis of more than 3,500 hearing tests, one out of four adults claimed their hearing was just fine and reported no job-related noise, yet hearing tests indicated they already had noise-induced hearing loss. This type of damage causes a telltale drop in the ability to hear high-pitched sounds, and it was evident in those as young as 20.
âWe have government standards in the workplace to protect workers from noise, but nothing protects you from a society getting noisier every year,â says audiologist Jack Scott, of the Center for Audiology, Speech, Language, and Learning at Northwestern University. Even in protected parks and wildlife areas, a recent study found that noise pollution from traffic, logging and drilling has doubled, drowning out the natural sounds of birds and rushing water.
Sarah Sydlowski, the audiology director of the hearing implant program at the Cleveland Clinic, puts the problem this way: âThe baby boomer generation is dealing with skin cancer from the tanning they did as teens. This generation will have to deal with the consequences of noise exposure that damaged their hearing.â
Many young adults don’t realize that hearing loss is permanent. When loud noise kills the sensitive inner-ear cells that allow us to hear, they don’t regenerate. âThe hearing you have when you’re born is all you get. Those cells can’t be replaced,â says Sydlowski says.
And the damage is cumulative, adds Scott. The more often the ears are exposed to damaging noise, the more cells die, leading to impaired hearing.
Better tech leads to loss
Part of the reason hearing damage is showing up earlier is today’s improved portable devices. The sound level 28 years ago from the Walkman, with its flimsy headphones, was much lower than today’s high-fidelity smartphones with earbuds that deliver louder sound much closer to the eardrum.
A study that compared hearing tests of teens during the late ’80s and ’90s â when Walkmans were popular Ââ with tests in 2005 to 2006 â when iPods were all the rage â found the levels of mild hearing loss jumped 30 percent.
But don’t just blame the earbuds, says Sydlowski. People underestimate what a safe level of sound is, âespecially when they’re already in a noisy environment.â
Both she and Scott say a common problem among their younger patients is cranking up the sound in their earbuds to mask the noise around them. âI had a patient who listened to loud music through his earbuds while he was mowing the lawn to drown out the noise of the mower,â says Scott. Unfortunately, using noise to drown out noise, âmakes it even worse.â
Anna Leach, 27, of Washington, D.C., who has worn hearing aids since she was 3, cringes when she sees people her age blasting music through their earbuds.
She’s also not shy about telling them that they’re risking their precious hearing.
âThere was a guy on the Metro next to me,â Leach says. âI pointed to my hearing aid and said, âI have hearing loss. If I can hear your music, you need to turn it down. You need to protect the hearing you have.’ He looked stunned.â
To protect your hearing, follow these tips:
Turn down the volume. If you’re listening to music through your earbuds, âany volume level higher than 50 percent is risky,â says Sydlowki.
Wear earplugs. For a concert, get a pair of the high-fidelity earplugs musicians wear, says Scott. They filter noise, but let you clearly hear the music. Even drugstore earplugs can help.
Limit your exposure. Avoid fitness classes with deafening music (or at least move away from the speakers, advises Sydlowski) and sports stadiums with ear-splitting crowd noise.
Are you in denial?
Waiting too long to get hearing loss treated is one of the most common problems Northwestern University audiologist Jack Scott sees among his older patients.
âThe longer they wait, the greater the loss. So when they finally do get hearing aids, it’s harder for their brain to adjust to hearing sounds again,â he says.
An estimated 27 million Americans older than 50 have hearing loss, but only one in seven uses a hearing aid, according to a recent Johns Hopkins University study. Typically, hearing aid users wait 10 years before getting help, which worsens the problem.
Patients also balk at the high cost of hearing aids, although that may be changing. A new law signed by the president in August would allow cheaper, over-the-counter hearing aids to be sold without a prescription.
For those who are reluctant to deal with their hearing loss, here’s what experts have to say:
Forget the stigma. People worry that wearing a hearing aid will make them look old, âbut answering incorrectly Ââ or not at all â because you can’t hear also sends a negative message,â says Cleveland Clinic audiologist Sarah Sydlowksi. Plus, she adds, a hearing aid can help you stay effective in your job or volunteer work.
It’s not just your ears – it’s your brain. Hearing loss has been linked to a growing list of health consequences, including walking problems, increased falls and a higher risk of dementia Ââ possibly because of the social isolation caused by hearing loss.
Take a friend. Anna Leach, 27, of Washington, D.C., who has worn hearing aids since she was a child, says her grandparents were hesitant to get hearing aids. She accompanied them to the audiologist, so it wouldn’t seem so intimidating.
Think of the rewards. âWhen they get their hearing aids, my patients tell me, âI can finally talk to my spouse again. I can understand my grandchildren,’â Scott says. One man even joked, âYou’ve cost me a lot of money. Until I got my hearing aid, I didn’t realize my refrigerator wasn’t running properly. I had to replace it.â
Candy Sagon is a Chicago Tribune (TNS) writer.