Have you noticed a recent challenge with your hearing but chose to ignore it? Research has shown that people often wait years (on average, seven years!) to confront a hearing issue, allowing a hearing condition to worsen while it goes unaddressed. Knowledge is power, and understanding how your hearing works can help you protect it from permanent damage. This October, we’re helping to promote Protect Your Hearing Month as a way to focus on hearing health awareness.
While it is true that hearing loss can be brought on by several different factors, the number one cause of hearing loss we see today is also the number one most preventable: noise-related hearing loss. Living in a noisy world, and especially with the rise of personal electronics, we can expose our hearing to volume levels that are capable of inflicting permanent hearing damage. Noise-related hearing loss is responsible for a troubling uptick of hearing loss in younger generations as well as contributing to accelerated hearing loss in older adults.
Damage to Hearing
What makes your hearing specifically vulnerable to permanent damage from noise is the fragility of the tiny sensory cells in the inner ear. These small “hair cells” carpet the walls of the cochlea and are sensitive enough to detect soundwave vibrations entering the ear. The hair cells not only are triggered by these vibrations, but they also are responsible for translating that sound wave into a signal sent to our brain for interpretation. The many hair cells responding to incoming vibrations bring crisp nuance to the way we hear.
Hair cells perform a major function in our auditory system, but they have limits. A very loud sound has the potential to stress hair cells beyond their breaking point. Think of a strong wind flattening a plant – if the wind is blowing hard enough for long enough, it can damage plant structures, like the stem, beyond repair. The same is true for hair cells – they are, unfortunately, unable to recover from damage. This means that any hair cell that sustains an injury is unable to ever function again, and our body is unable to replace these delicate and specialized cells.
The fewer hair cells we have functioning in our inner ear, the less sharp our sense of hearing becomes. This is what people experience when they have hearing loss – perhaps they can detect a person speaking, but because they don’t have enough functioning hair cells to capture all the details of the speech, it ends up sounding muffled or mumbled. Losing hair cells is like sanding the fine details off of your sense of hearing.
At What Age Does Hearing Loss Start?
It may already be apparent that if hearing damage is permanent, every time we sustain hearing injuries it contributes to reduced hearing performance. Over the course of our life, new hearing damage is piled onto what has already been sustained, and hearing loss accrues over our lifetime. This has meant that as we age we see a steady rise in the risk of significant hearing loss, both as gradual damage begins to add up and our aging auditory system becomes more easily injured. However, depending on noise exposure, significant hearing loss can occur at any age.
Recently, an alarming study found that in Gen Z teenagers, 17% had already developed some degree of hearing loss, showing that healthy listening habits are not being taught, with grave consequences. Part of the explosion in noise-related hearing loss among young people is linked to the rise in the use of headphones or earbuds to listen to music and entertainment, such as video games. By channeling loud noise levels directly into the ear canal, permanent damage can be swiftly done and bad volume habits can go undetected by others.
Teens who crank up the volume on their music can hit volume levels comparable to being at a live rock concert where noise at 105 decibels is loud enough to induce hearing damage in under 10 minutes. It is important to emphasize that we need our hearing throughout our whole life, and so we can still enjoy the music we love today decades later, without the struggles of hearing loss. Healthy listening means reducing the volume to the level of normal conversation and taking plenty of breaks from headphones and earbud use.
If you are concerned about your hearing abilities, we’re here to help! Contact us today to schedule an appointment for a hearing test.