People wear them at the gym, on the train and while out doing errands, but using headphones too often at loud levels may come with hidden costs. Younger adults who are heavy users of headphones had about the same reported rate of hearing problems as adults 45 and older, a new report showed.
The reported rate of hearing loss or ringing in the ear was 23 percent among adults age 18 to 44 who used personal music players with headphones at more than half-volume an average of five to seven days a week for four or more hours per day, compared with 22 percent among adults age 45 and older, regardless of their headphone use.
These hearing problem rates, which came from a New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene data report, were more than twice as high as those reported by younger adults with light-to-moderate or no use of headphones—10 percent and nine percent, respectively.
The report used information from the 2011 New York City Community Health Survey, an annual telephone survey of approximately 9,000 adults age 18 and older. The overall prevalence of hearing problems was 16 percent.
“The results of this survey fit quite nicely with what we found in our own studies,” said Brian J. Fligor, ScD, director of diagnostic audiology at Boston Children's Hospital and instructor in otology and laryngology at Harvard Medical School, who consulted with the NYC Health Department on the development of the report.
“I think it has some good information, but it's also limited because it's a self-report. You can't say anything diagnostic because it's not peer-reviewed, even though it matches up with peer-reviewed reports.”
Anil K. Lalwani, MD, director of the Division of Otology, Neurotology, & Skull Base Surgery and of the Cochlear Implant Center, as well as professor and vice chair for research in otolaryngology–head and neck surgery, at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, said he was most surprised by how many hours people were using their headphones on a daily basis.
Of the adults age 18 to 44 who reported listening to music with headphones, 58 percent tuned in five to seven days a week, and 36 percent every day. Of those who used headphones every day, 16 percent said they listened at more than half the maximum volume for four hours or more.
“People are listening to music more frequently and for longer periods of time because of the convenience and longevity of the technology compared with older devices like the Walkman,” Dr. Lalwani said. “Add that onto how the design of modern-day headphones basically funnels noise directly into a person's ear, and it's like getting an extra dose of noise.”
Exposure to acute or prolonged loud sounds can cause irreversible damage to the inner ear, resulting in hearing loss, tinnitus, or both. The effects of loud sounds are cumulative, and hearing problems may occur many years after the exposure begins.
An analogy can be made to smoking, another behavior people aren't as afraid to do because many of the health consequences only manifest years down the road, Dr. Lalwani said.
Another problem is that it's currently impossible to translate a particular volume on a personal music player into decibels, he added.
“I think that this type of information could be great for a person's general knowledge,” Dr. Lalwani said. “There could also be simple campaigns that people can easily latch onto.”
The report recommended reducing headphone volume, never listening at maximum volume, limiting the amount of listening time, and taking breaks. This approach gives the inner ear time to bounce back so the internal structures don't get overfatigued.
Dr. Fligor applauded the inclusion in the report of recommendations for healthcare providers and manufacturers, as this issue should also be on their radar screen, he noted.
“Public health surveys like this have the capacity to raise awareness and influence behaviors on a broad level for the future, even though we still have to take them with a grain of salt and treat them as anecdotal,” Dr. Fligor said.
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