We are the gadget generation – and whether it’s our MP3s (which includes iPods) or smartphones, we like to stay plugged in, listening to our favourite band or latest podcast.
But we could be doing our hearing a lot of harm.
According to a new report by the Hear the World initiative, Britons are only second to the US when it comes to music player use – 16 per cent of us listen to our MP3 players on a daily basis, and 9 per cent crank up the volume to maximum.
We talk to the European Audiologist of the Year Robert Beiny and audiological scientist Paul Checkley about the dangers of MP3s and what you can do to keep your ears safe.
What’s the danger?
In our busy and often noisy lives, plugging in your headphones can be a great way to escape.
But more than ever before, we’re listening to music at a high volume, often just to drown out the noise around us.
The Hear the World report, a global initiative to raise awareness of hearing problems, surveyed 4,400 people around the world (including the UK) aged 14 to 65 and revealed that 85 per cent played their MP3 player at more than 50 per cent of total volume.
The real problem is that MP3 players have the ability to blast 104 decibels (dB) straight into the ears – equivalent of standing next to a pneumatic drill (110dB). In fact, any level above 90dB can cause long-term damage to hearing.
‘Research shows that people are frequently listening to their players at a level that’s too high,’ says Robert Beiny, director of audiology at the Hearing Healthcare Practice, Hertfordshire, and spokesman for the Hear the World campaign.
‘In fact, around 1 in 4 people in the UK between the ages of 18 to 24 have been found to listen to music at maximum volume – which is a real concern.
‘Teenagers are now experiencing the same hearing damage as their parents’ generation but at a much younger age,’ he says.
How does loud noise damage the ear?
People with good hearing have tiny hair cells that line the inner ear and these transmit signals to the brain, which are interpreted as sound.
Listening to loud music can flatten these hairs, and although they normally spring back into place, noise damage over a long period can cause them to snap.
The problem – and one that many people don’t realise – is that these hairs do not regrow and so any damage is permanent.
‘The damage isn’t instantaneous. It can take many months or even years for the effect to become apparent,’ says Robert Beiny.
‘But listening to loud music over a long time will gradually weaken the structures in the ear, and this can cause conditions such as ringing (tinnitus) or muffled hearing,’ he says.
Lack of awareness
One of the problems with hearing health is that many people – especially teenagers – don’t recognise the dangers of loud music.
‘I generally think the public are not aware of the damage that loud music can cause,’ says Paul Checkley, audiological scientist at Harley Street Hearing.
‘Historically, at least since the 50s and 60s, people have been aware that industrial noise can cause damage, which is why there has been legislation in this area.
‘People tend to protect their ears when using hydraulic drills, but music has been largely forgotten. What people don’t realise is that any loud sound can damage hearing.’
So, how do you know when loud is too loud? The most simple rule is that if others can hear your music, it’s probably too loud advises Paul Chekley.
‘There are certain signs to look out for when your hearing is being affected,’ adds Robert Beiny.
‘The first is any ringing or buzzing you can hear when you stop listening to your MP3. The other is called temporary threshold shift and is a kind of short-term hearing loss.
‘You might find that if you turn off your player in a quiet environment, the sounds may seem muffled and blurred.’
Anything you listen to can affect your hearing health, not just music. In fact you should be careful with audiobooks and podcasts as well as your music.
This is of course one of the key factors – the louder you listen to something the greater the damage it will have on your ears.
‘It’s hard to quantify a safe set level because the output of every player is different,’ says Robert Beiny.
‘However, a good rule of thumb is the 60/60 rule. You should only listen to music at 60 per cent volume, and you shouldn’t listen for more that 60 minutes in one sitting,’ he says.
Where you do your listening can actually have a big impact because it affects the level you need to set your player.
‘If there’s noise around you – maybe on a tube or a busy public space – people tend to turn the volume up high to block this out, increasing their risk,’ says Robert Beiny.
The standard MP3 headphones don’t seal the ear and let in extraneous noise from outside, often prompting people to turn up their player volume.
There are three types of headphone that can help reduce the damage:
- The old fashioned ones that sit right over the ear – look out for ones with decent cushioning.
- The ones with electronic limiters that actively cancel out noise.
- The ‘bud’ type earphones that have a custom sleeve and sit right in the ear, sealing against outside noise.
‘High quality earphones are a good investment because they will block more of the environmental noise, allowing the user to reduce the volume and still hear the music comfortably,’ says Paul Checkley.
Surprisingly, music that people think is going to be most dangerous isn’t necessarily the worst. In fact, classical can be as damaging as heavy metal or rock.
‘I have patients who are jazz, classical and rock musicians and so I don’t think that one type of music is any safer or more dangerous than any other,’ says Robert Beiny.
‘It’s simply the volume at which you listen to it,’ he says
Resting your ears
Listening to non-stop music doesn’t give the cells in the ear time to recover.
So, you should always try to have at least 10 minutes of quiet for every hour of music you listen to.
‘One thing that doesn’t help is that MP3s now hold so much music,’ says Robert Beiny.
‘In the days of tapes or CDs, you may have had a couple of albums with you – but you would soon run out of songs. Now you can have 100,000 songs and listen to different tracks all day.’
What you eat can actually have an affect on your ears, and a good diet can help stave off hearing loss.
‘Antioxidants can be really good for hearing because they improve the blood supply to the inner ear, slowing down the deterioration of the hair cells,’ says Robert Beiny.
Try to include avocados, tomatoes, oily fish and red wine in your diet, which are rich in antioxidants.
On the other hand, smoking is bad for the blood supply to the inner ear, constricting the blood vessels in the area.
‘Research has shown that smokers are much more susceptible to hearing damage than non-smokers,’ adds Robert Beiny.
Other dangers and what you can do about them
It’s not just MP3 music that can damage you hearing – noise is all around us and it can be difficult to avoid.
Background noise: people are continuously bombarded by sound – in this industrial age when you step out on the street, there’s noise all around you. So, if you have any ear problems, be careful in noisy places.
Clubs and concerts: make sure you give yourself a break when you’re on a night out. Don’t stand near the speakers and rest your ears every hour for a good 10 minutes.
Noise at work: if your workplace is noisy, there are legal rules for employers.
‘If the average noise level is 80dB, employees should be made aware of the possibility of damage,’ says Paul Checkley. ‘At 85dB, employers should actively take steps to reduce noise levels at source and provide personal hearing protection if levels can’t be reduced.’
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