Headphones Aren’t Actually Making Us Deaf

Hearing loss in teens has actually gone down.

Unsplash / Alice Moore

Remember when your parents would nag you when you shoved your earbuds in your ears, warning that listening to your iPod or Zune all day would make you deaf, and you just rolled your eyes?

Seems like rolling your eyes was the right response. Despite the conventional wisdom that blasting music right into our eardrums would blow them out, a paper published Thursday in JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery reveals that while teens have been exposed to more loud noises in the past few years, there’s no corollary increase in hearing loss.

In fact, hearing loss in teens has dropped, though some demographics are more at-risk than others.

The researchers relied on data from NHANES, or the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys from 1988 through 2010 and looked at comparative rates of exposure to loud noises and hearing loss in teenagers.

What they found is that neither general exposure to loud noises nor having listened to loud music in the last 24 hours prior to taking a hearing test were correlated to hearing loss. While the data showed a slight trend towards hearing loss due to firearm use or exposure to loud noises for over five hours each week, the data weren’t strong enough to make a connection.

Of all these factors, only race, poverty-income ratio, and number of ear infections were shown to correlate with hearing loss.

University of California, San Francisco

However, the data showed three groups of people were at a higher risk for hearing loss. Teens who have had more than three ear infections in their lifetimes had the strongest correlation. The other two groups at risk? People of color and people below the poverty line.

While there are unsolved mysteries hiding in NHANES data, this study made it clear that even though people are using less hearing protection than in the past and headphone use is nearly ubiquitous, people aren’t necessarily losing their hearing.

You shouldn’t use this study as an excuse to deliberately shatter your eardrums by blasting some bangers. But hey, if you feel the urge to turn the volume up to “Despacito”, go ahead and groove. Your ear canals should be okay.

Abstract: Importance There have been concerns about increasing levels of hearing impairment in children and adolescents, especially in relation to noise exposure, because even mild levels of hearing loss can affect educational outcomes. Objective: To further characterize changes in prevalence of hearing loss and noise exposures in the US pediatric population over time. Design, setting, and participants This is a retrospective analysis of demographic and audiometric data from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III, 1988-1994), NHANES 2005-2006, NHANES 2007-2008, and NHANES 2009-2010. The NHANES are nationally representative survey data sets collected and managed by the US National Center for Health Statistics, and this study includes a total of 7036 survey participants ages 12 to 19 years with available audiometric measurements. Exposures Hearing-related behaviors and risk factors such as history of ear infections, noise exposures, firearm use, and hearing protection use. Main outcomes and measures Level of hearing loss measured by pure-tone audiometry, as well as high-frequency and low-frequency hearing loss and noise-induced threshold shifts. Results Overall, data from 7036 survey participants ages 12 to 19 years with available audiometric measurements were analyzed. The prevalence of hearing loss increased from NHANES III to NHANES 2007-2008 (17.0%to 22.5%for >15 dB hearing loss; absolute difference, 5.5%; 95%CI, 6.1%-10.3%) but decreased in the NHANES 2009-2010 to 15.2% (absolute difference, 7.2%; 95%CI, 2.0%-12.4%) with no significant overall secular trend identified. There was an overall rise in exposure to loud noise or music through headphones 24 hours prior to audiometric testing from NHANES III to NHANES 2009-2010. However, noise exposure, either prolonged or recent, was not consistently associated with an increased risk of hearing loss across all surveys. The most recent survey cycle showed that nonwhite race/ethnicity and low socioeconomic status are independent risk factors for hearing loss. Conclusions and relevance This analysis did not identify significant changes in prevalence of hearing loss in US youth ages 12 to 19 years over this time period despite increases in reported noise exposures. No consistent associations were shown between noise exposure and hearing loss, though there was an association between racial/ethnic minority status and low socioeconomic status and increased risk of hearing loss. Ongoing monitoring of hearing loss in this population is necessary to elucidate long-term trends and identify targets for intervention.
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