We’re exposed to noise all around us on a daily basis. From traffic and lawn tractors to jet planes and music, noise seems to be everywhere. One of the unfortunate side-effects of the modern world has been the increase in hearing impairment, not so much by older individuals as would be expected but by an ever-increasing number of young people. A recent study shows that one in five teens has already lost some hearing, and the problem has been substantially increasing in recent years. The phenomenon of “old ears” in a young person doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon.
The majority of hearing loss among young adults has been caused by listening to music at too high of a decibel. A lot of this is attributable to MP3 players, loud radios, and attending rock concerts. Other contributions to hearing loss include motorcycles, firearms, leaf blowers, hair dryers, target shooting and hunting, snowmobile riding, hobbies such as woodworking, and playing in a band. Examples of famous rock stars who have experienced significant hearing loss include Eric Clapton, Peter Townshend, Phil Collins, and Neil Young.
Long or repeated exposure to sounds above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss. The louder the sound, the shorter the time period before hearing loss can occur. While a single exposure to an extremely loud noise can do permanent damage, a good rule of thumb is to avoid noises that are “too loud” and “too close” or that last “too long.”
Once the damage to hearing has been done, it’s not going to get fixed. It is now believed by scientists that the pure force of vibrations from music can trigger the formation of molecules inside the ear that permanently damage hair cells.
Scientists believe that, depending on the type of noise, the pure force of vibrations from the noise can cause hearing loss. Recent studies also show that exposure to harmful noise levels triggers the formation of molecules inside the ear that damage the delicate sensory hair cells of the inner ear or the nerves that supply it.Excessive sounds can cause these tiny hair cells to become bent or broken. Once this happens, they can no longer convert sound waves into electrical impulses. There is no known way of repairing these tiny hair cells.
A hearing aid amplifies sound so that any remaining undamaged hair cells can pick up sounds. The fewer remaining cells, the louder the amplification that is needed. However, there is a practical limit to which sound waves can be made louder. If too many hair cells have been damaged, then a hearing aid will not be of any use.
So now that you have heard the grim facts, you’ll want to take better care of your hearing, right? One way to do this of course is to avoid environments in which very loud sounds are present. However, this is not always practical, for instance if it is part of your job. In this case, your best bet is to wear ear protection. Ear protection basically involves wearing either specially designed ear muffs or using ear plugs.
Ear muffs offer the most protection but may be overkill in many situations and also cost more than plugs. However, they offer the best protection because the entire ear is covered and because they stay in place better for a person who is physically active.
There are headphones that are marketed as noise-cancellation devices, not so much for hearing protection as for just blotting out ambient noise, such as on an airplane.This is accomplished by means of an active noise control that generates an anti-noise signal.
Virtually all ear plugs come with a Noise Reduction Rating, or NRR, that indicates how much sound the plugs will muffle. For instance, a rating of 32 means that if the ambient decibel level is 123, then an ear plug reduces that to 90 before it travels into the ear canal. In a sense, perhaps a better term would be ear filter rather than ear plug.
Regardless of what you call these products, if you are regularly exposed to sounds that are consistently above 85 decibels, then you need to be taking steps to protect your hearing. Otherwise, you’ll be saying “eh?” a lot earlier in life than your grandfather did.