Try walking down any street without passing youngsters and adults alike with buds in their ears. Our ears have become a destination for all kinds of technology, from MP3 players to iPhones. Unfortunately, our hearing is paying the price. According to a 2011 Harvard University study of 4310 adolescents, hearing loss in girls has risen from 11.6 to 16.7 percent since the late ‘80s, catching up to adolescent boys. And the number of kids who had listened to loud music through headphones in the last 24 hours rose from 20 to 35 percent.
“We are absolutely seeing more noise-induced hearing loss in young adults who have more noise exposure from personal music players and live concerts,” says Dr. Katrina Stidham, chief of neurotology at Westchester Medical Center and director of the Cochlear Implant Program at Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital in Valhalla, New York. “You may not notice the loss for years,” she says, as hearing loss is cumulative, “so we expect to see a lot more people in their 30s with significant hearing problems.”
How to Recognize a Hearing Problem
Ringing or buzzing in your ears may be a sign of hearing loss, says Dr. Lauren Epple, doctor of audiology at Maryland Ear Nose and Throat and Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore. “Or if you start asking people to repeat things or turn the TV up while others complain,” Epple says.
Muffled noises are also telltale signs. And if the mall or other noisy places are your toughest spots for conversation, that may also mean your hearing’s damaged.
Your family may notice your hearing loss before you do, a sometimes sticky situation. Stidham’s advice to family members? To let you know what you’re not hearing. They should not accommodate your hearing loss by speaking louder or blasting the TV.
Time for the Doctor
If you’ve having any signs of hearing loss, it’s time to see an otologist, or hearing specialist. The doctor will ask about your noise exposure—how many hours a day you listen to loud music, for example. “He will also measure your ear drum function to make sure there are no holes or fluid,” Epple says. An audiologist will test your hearing, looking for loss at certain frequencies.
“Most people have higher-frequency hearing loss first,” Stidham says. That’s because the nerve endings for higher frequencies are closer to the outer ear than those for lower frequencies and so are damaged first. A man with hearing loss, for instance, may have more trouble hearing his wife—who has a higher-pitched voice—than his buddies.
If the evaluation shows you need a hearing aid, the audiologist will fit you with one. “Many people have a fear of hearing aids,” Stidham says. “But they’re thinking of the big clunky behind-the-ear devices. Hearing aids now are much more cosmetic with much better sound.”
Still, the best step is prevention. Nothing can repair hearing loss. So, the doctor will also talk about ways to protect your ears. When it comes to noise, less is better, Stidham says, and earplugs are cool.
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