I wake up, put on my wireless headphones and listen to a podcast on my way to the gym. During my workout, I listen to hip-hop or rap until it comes time to stretch and cool down when I then switch back to a podcast. Before I start working on my laptop, I switch to an instrumental playlist to drown out my surroundings, keep me focused and slightly entertained. When it’s time to cook or do chores around the house, maybe I’ll listen to an audiobook. Alright, time to get back to work and flip on the instrumentals. This process goes on all day for many days of the week. Despite it being so chiseled into my routine, there has always been a voice in the back of my head saying, “are you sure that listening to headphones 8+ hours a day isn’t bad for your hearing?” This voice was always silenced because I enjoyed the benefits of what I listened to all day.
However, if I am truly concerned about the longevity of myself and others, it would be a disservice to not investigate the research that has been done so that we all can make a more informed decision about our headphone habits and listening in general.
Our ears are amazing tools that we often take for granted. When a noise is made, a sound wave is emitted through a difference in air pressure. When this wave makes it to our ears, it is amplified by our eardrums and a couple tiny bones. This amplification then hits tiny hair cells (stereocilia) which vibrate and create a nerve impulse that is translated by our brains into the sounds we hear . This is an astounding process that many (at least myself) don’t think of on a day to day basis.
These tiny hair cells are not indestructible and that is why people get hearing loss. When we are subjected loud noises for even a short period of time, these cells can become damaged and possibly die. The result this cell death is that our ability to hear degrades. For most of us, this is a prolonged process that happens with age, but it can be sped up if we are consistently in a noisy environment without hearing protection. Even more, we can speed up the process by subjecting ourselves to unnecessary loud noises.
It is fairly intuitive that going to a concert, club, or listening to loud music can damage our hearing. Despite this, studies show that most people feel their ears are invincible to loud noises and would rather not impose a high music limit on their personal listening habits . This is understandable; when you’re young, hearing loss doesn’t really seem like an issue. That is, until later in life when you have to yell “WHAT?!” every time someone speaks to you.
“Although they appeared to be generally aware of the risks of exposure to loud music, they expressed low personal vulnerability to music-induced hearing loss”
Most often, the decibel (dB) scale is what is used when we talk about how “loud” something is. Since everyone’s hearing is different, the goal of the scale is to reduce the consequent subjectivity of what is considered to be loud. On the scale, 0 is the quietest noise the general person with no hearing loss can notice and every increase of 10 doubles the intensity of the sound. So, 20 dB is twice as loud as 10dB, and so forth.
How do decibels affect our hearing you may ask? Well, the CDC recommends that 85dB should not be listened to for more than eight hours. Also, the limit for 95dB is 47 minutes and 105dB is just 5 minutes. This may not mean much right away, so let’s put it in perspective. Most cell phones and mp3 players allow a max headphone volume between 91-121 dB . This means that depending on your device, going over 80% might be harmful to your ears if you listen for a long period of time. Luckily for me, I almost never go above 50% on my Samsung S7, so according to this, I should be safe. Although, during my workout, I may push it above 75% so I will have to watch out for that. I recommend you do the same.
Aside from my recommendation, the rest of you are likely already somewhat similar in your listening habits. A study found that on average, people listen at about 72 dB which does not cause damage. However, if you’re one of those people that have music loud enough so that everyone you walk past knows exactly what song you are listening to, maybe it’s time to reconsider.
While on the topic of hearing loss, the same voice telling me that headphones are bad for my ears also chimes in whenever I attend concerts. The data on concerts is a bit more alarming. One study found that there are significant amounts of hearing loss among college students who regularly attend concerts . You know that feeling after a concert when you can’t really hear for an hour or so afterward? Ya, me too, and that means those little hair cells in the back of your ear are struggling. This is because the average club music is about 95dB and concerts are about 105dB. From the CDC information, we know that 105dB is only safe for 5 minutes! Despite this, most concerts last anywhere from 1.5-3 hours. That can be a lot of damage depending on where you are standing.
I think all of us can be a bit more responsible when it comes to our hearing. And we better start right away, because hearing loss can really hinder older adults socially and economically. Researchers found that severity of hearing loss was statistically correlated with reduced quality of life as we age .
“Severity of hearing loss was significantly associated with decreased function in both the Mental Component Summary score and the Physical Component Summary score”
If you want to get a check up on your hearing, head over to your local Otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat doctor). If that is too much of a hassle, there are a couple really good hearing apps that can be put to use if you have a smartphone. The app “uHear” for IOS was shown to be very accurate even in a clinical setting . There hasn’t been any research done on apps for Android, but “Hearing Test” by e-audiologia.pl seemed to be an easy and straightforward option when I used it.
The research in this area is nowhere near complete, but for now, it is safe to continue listening through headphones. Besides, there are massive benefits that many get such as increased focus during work or studying, extra intensity during a workout, or simply acquiring knowledge through books or podcasts. With that being said, be careful with your ears. They are hugely important when it comes to our quality of life, and when they go out, there is no getting them back.
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