A deafening epidemic: The rise of noise-induced hearing loss, and how to stop it

I’m sure I’m not the first person to warn you about the dangers of loud noises. Our ears are remarkably sensitive organs and they can suffer permanent damage after a surprisingly short exposure to sounds in excess of 100 decibels (dB). It’s why people who routinely work with heavy machinery wear hearing protection.

But for everyone else who simply goes about their lives doing normal things like listening to music, the threat of hearing damage seems like a faraway risk, not something that needs to be guarded against. And that’s exactly wrong.

Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is a slow-moving epidemic. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) estimates that more than 40 million (about 12%) of American adults ages 20-69 have some kind of hearing loss. Half of these people don’t experience any loud sounds at work.

What makes NIHL so insidious is that it’s almost impossible to detect in its early stages. Because it’s cumulative, repeated loud sound exposure chips away at your ability to perceive the full range of audible frequencies. Like cancer, by the time you become aware that there’s a problem, the damage has already been done. Unlike some cancers, there is no treatment that can restore lost hearing. When it’s gone, it’s gone forever.

Fortunately, with advances in technology and greater awareness of the threat, NIHL can be reduced or eliminated completely. Here are your best defenses against NIHL.

Start young

Child wearing headphones
Tom Odulate/Getty Images

As an adult, you’ve probably been exposed to the kinds of loud sounds that cause hearing loss. Hopefully, it’s not severe and you can focus on preventing it from getting worse over time. But if you’re a parent or caregiver, it’s vital that you protect your kids’ hearing from the get-go. Think of it as an investment in their future health, like immunizations and regular visits to the doctor or dentist.

Vigilance between the ages of 1-16 can ensure that they start their adult lives with the best hearing possible.

Headphone design matters

Headphones that create a tight seal against our heads or ears are great for blocking out unwanted sounds, but they can also pose a risk, says Lise Henningsen, audiology lead at Widex. “They have the benefit of that full, immersive sound experience,” Henningsen told Digital Trends, “but they also put the full force of the sound pressure level delivered by the headphones into the ear canal.”

This leads to a double-edged sword situation. Good isolation of unwanted sounds means we don’t have to pump up the volume as high to hear our audio, but it also means the majority of that volume is being absorbed directly by our ears instead of leaking out the sides of the headphones.

Sound quality matters

If you’ve ever wondered whether or not a more expensive set of headphones can be justified purely on the basis of their sound quality, Henningsen says the answer is yes. “The higher the quality of the headset, the better.” It turns out that lower-quality headphones have a tendency to introduce distortion and often suffer from poor frequency response. These two attributes can cause dangerous peaks in high frequencies, which is the root cause of most cases of NIHL.

When our music sounds muddy or scratchy, we sometimes respond by increasing the volume to compensate — a vicious circle that simultaneously leads to a worsening of the distortion and an increased risk of dangerous sound levels.

“The higher the quality of the headset, the better.”

But not everyone can afford to just drop a big pile of cash to get an awesome set of headphones, and even very expensive cans aren’t perfect.  Dirac Research is one company that is trying to address the quality shortcomings of headphones by providing customized precompensation filters, which effectively clean up the sound you hear before you hear it.

“We focus on enhancing the sound experience, making the sound quality as good as possible,” Nilo Casimiro Ericsson, Dirac Research head of product management for mobile, told Digital Trends. “I think that’s key to not having to increase the volume. So if you’re in a noisy environment or if you have crappy headphones or the connection is bad, you may try to compensate for that by increasing the volume.”

Dirac’s system is now being incorporated into the chipsets of wireless headphones and earbuds. I tried an early version of the Dirac system, which required the Dirac app to be loaded on a smartphone or PC, and worked exclusively with the specific headphone models that Dirac has in its database. It definitely altered the sound of the music I heard, but I’m not convinced that it helped to reduce the need for volume.

Consider active noise cancellation

One of the biggest reasons we pump up the volume on our headphones is to overcome competing sounds that leak through to our ears. A really tight seal on a set of in-ear earbuds or headphones can help by providing passive noise isolation, but if you want to give yourself a really quiet starting point for your tunes, active noise cancellation (ANC) can be a big advantage.

By creating sound waves that are tuned to be the exact inverse of incoming sounds, ANC neutralizes those competing noises. Just like with sound quality, there tends to be a price-to-quality relationship with ANC. In our experience, the best ANC headphones start at around $200.

Setting levels

Research has shown that 85 decibels (dB) is the safe limit for exposure to sound over a prolonged period. Increasingly, headphone and personal audio companies are making efforts to help their customers stay within this safety zone.

Apple, for instance, includes a way to track and regulate headphone audio levels in iOS 14. You can set a maximum dB threshold of anywhere from 75 dB to 100 dB, and the app will show you detailed stats for volume levels and length of exposure. It’s most accurate when used with headphones made by Apple or Beats by Dre, but the app can use volume settings to estimate the exposure of other wired and wireless headphones.

Newer Android devices come with a similar volume-limiting option, but there’s no way to see your exposure levels tracked over time.

In an ideal world, all headphones and earbuds would have built-in circuitry that could prevent this 85 dB threshold from being exceeded. Some already do, like Puro Sound Lab’s headphones for adults and kids.

A “too loud” rule of thumb

It would be great if we could simply hand over responsibility for volume exposure to our devices and forget all about it, but the technology simply isn’t there yet. Instead, Henningsen says we should employ a simple test when listening to headphones.

“The right level of your headphones is a level where you can actually hear me when I speak to you at a moderate level while you’re listening,” she said, “because if you can’t hear me at a normal distance while I walk up to you and start talking to you — if you can’t hear a word I’m saying — then those headphones are too loud.”

Henningsen has passed this advice on to her own teenage sons, who gave her a predictable response: “Mom, you’ve got to be kidding me. I need louder music.”

About the only thing you can say to that is, yes, of course, you like it loud. But if you listen to that loud music for a long period of time, there will be consequences.

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