Bluetooth headphones and earbuds like AirPods are pretty much ubiquitous in present day life due to Zoom calls, podcast-binging, music on repeat and playlist pumped-up workouts.
While this is definitely convenient and handy for multitasking, health experts are suggesting it might be time to tune in and turn it down.
A new analysis by the Acoustical Society of America reports that high levels of loud noise-to the tune of 70 decibels or more (on par with typical living room-blasted music or a vacuum cleaner)-can put us at increased risk for future hearing loss. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that approximately 50 percent of people ages 12 to 35 are putting themselves at higher risk for hearing loss "due to prolonged and excessive exposure to loud sounds, including music they listen to through personal audio devices.
"The medical and audiology communities, as well as the general public, don't understand that significant hearing loss is not part of normal healthy aging, but largely represents noise-induced hearing loss," Dr. Daniel Fink, board chair of the Quiet Coalition, tells Healthline. "We should be able to hear well into old age, something generally not true in industrialized societies," said Fink.
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For this analysis, Fink and audiologist Jan Mayes collected data from several articles about personal audio systems. Individuals who used headphones or earbuds the most are potentially damaging their hearing later on in life the most.
"Especially for young people…personal audio system use is the major source of leisure noise exposure. [When] they reach mid-life, probably in their early to mid-40s, they will be as hard of hearing as their grandparents are now in their 70s and 80s," Fink says in the same Healthline interview.
Beyond losing the ability to hear as sharply (or at all, without hearing assistance devices), hearing loss has been linked to cognitive decline, reports a 2011 study published in JAMA Neurology. When compared to peers without hearing loss, those with mildly impacted audio abilities were twice as likely to develop dementia. Moderate hearing loss places people at three times the risk for dementia, while severe hearing loss makes one five times (!) more likely to receive a dementia diagnosis during their lifetime.
Well-treated hearing loss with tools such as hearing aids does reduce this risk, confirms Mary L. Carson, Au.D, licensed clinical audiologist.
"However, as the old adage goes 'an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.' Starting better hearing health habits now may be an investment in your long-term health, not only by preventing hearing loss, but also reducing your risk of cognitive decline and dementia as you age," Carson tells Healthline.
This hearing loss can be triggered by one extremely loud event, but in most cases, it's the result of slow, repeated exposure to moderately-loud sounds.
"We live in a noisy world, and many people are exposing themselves repeatedly to unsafe noise levels which may affect their long-term health. In my practice, we recently saw a young adult with a perforated eardrum from listening to music with earbuds too loudly," Carson adds.
Luckily, it's possible to prevent hearing loss before it happens. To keep your ears safe, aim to:
Turn down the volume. While it's tough to track the exact decibel level of your specific listening device (< 70 decibels is ideal), aim to keep the volume at 50% or less while using any form of headphones.
Try a sound meter app to check the room. Free smartphone apps like the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)Sound Level Meter can monitor the decibel level of your environment and help you better understand what level of noise counts as "loud" (and what is potentially harmful).
Protect your ears when necessary. Try ear plugs or sound-protective headphones (such as Decibel Defense Professional Safety Ear Muffs; buy it: $25.79, Amazon.com) at loud concerts, studio workout classes or events.
Watch out for the warning signs. The initial warning signs of potential hearing loss include ringing in the ears and struggling to keep up with conversations at normal speaking levels. Anyone who notices changes in the ability to hear should get a hearing test, as should adults over 50 at least once per year.