Nearly a quarter of young adults listen to music at such excessively high levels they are at risk of going deaf, a study published last week reports.
"Our study shows that unsafe listening practices are common among young people, which may place over 1 billion young people at risk of developing permanent hearing loss," study author Lauren Dillard, a postdoctoral fellow at the Medical University of South Carolina, told DW.
"Noise-induced hearing loss is irreversible, and we need to implement strategies to prevent hearing loss," she added.
1 billion young people at risk of hearing damage
The study, published in BMJ Global Health, was a systematic review and meta-analysis. The authors evaluated 33 studies related to noise exposure and unsafe listening involving over 19,000 people aged between 19-34.
"We define unsafe listening in terms of the sound loudness and the duration of noise exposure. Any device paired to a headphone or earpod that exceeds permissible limits for safe listening can put individuals at risk," Dillard said.
The study estimated that 24% of young adults were exposed to excessive noise from personal listening devices like smartphones and laptops.
They also estimated that 48% of people aged 12 to 34 were exposed to unsafe noise levels in music venues.
Extrapolating the data out to the global population, the study estimates over 1 billion people worldwide are at risk of developing hearing problems from their listening habits.
All ages likely at risk of hearing damage
While the study focuses on risks to young people, research suggests that people of all age groups are at risk of hearing damage from their listening habits.
The risk of hearing loss depends on the loudness, duration and frequency of noise exposure. One study found that people aged 19-29 use headphones for 7.8 hours per week, while 30-49-year-olds listen for 5.5 hours per week and 50–79-year-olds for 5.2 hours per week.
People often listen to audio on devices up to 105 decibels and the average sound levels at entertainment venues range from 104 to 122 decibels. According to World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, exposure to noise at these volumes for even 10-15 minutes per week exceeds safe listening levels.
Data suggests the risk of hearing damage across the population is significant. Nevertheless, Dillard emphasized that younger people have higher risks due to the cumulative effect of noise exposure over time.
"It is important to prioritize hearing loss prevention for all ages, but it is particularly important to reduce hearing loss earlier in life so it does not progress and get worse with time," Dillard said.
Are modern listening devices to blame?
People have been concerned about the effects of loud music on hearing since the 1950s, so what's different now? Are listening devices and concerts louder than they used to be?
According to Dillard, it's not so much that music got louder, but rather the availability of audio devices and time spent listening to them has increased.
"Smartphones are extremely common now worldwide, which means that more people may be exposed to loud music," she said.
Linda Ballam-Davies, a spokesperson for Hearing Australia, highlighted how changes in technology and work-life balance are impacting listening habits.
"Listening devices are becoming more prevalent in society over the last decade with the convenience of Bluetooth connectivity. The increase in people working from home has also potentially contributed to higher rates of headphone use," she told DW.
How to protect your hearing
Noise-induced hearing loss is permanent, and hearing experts warn that today's listening habits are having a serious impact on global health.
"Early preventative efforts are worthwhile before years of high exposure have taken place," said Ballam-Davies.
So what can you do to protect your hearing?
- Keep the volume below 60% of the maximum volume level on devices.
- Protect your ears by wearing earplugs in noisy venues and move away from sources of loud sound.
- Limit the amount of time spent doing noisy activities. Take short breaks away from loud sounds and limit the daily use of personal listening devices.
- Monitor listening levels via built-in safe listening features on your phone or by using apps to monitor sound exposure.
- Check your hearing. There are validated apps, including hearWHO, that you can use if you do not have access to a hearing professional.
Edited by: Clare Roth