Loud music puts young people at risk of undetected hearing damage
A part of the inner ear which helps in sound detection functioned less efficiently in people exposed to the highest levels of noise in clubs and concerts.
Young clubbers and gig-goers who attend loud music events are more likely to have early signs of hearing damage compared to those who lead quieter lives, scientists have said.
A new study by the University of Manchester suggests that while this damage is not yet severe enough to be diagnosed as a hearing loss in young adults, it may have a cumulative effect on hearing later in life.
Based on their findings, published in the journal Hearing Research, the scientists are urging those frequently exposed to loud music to get their hearing tested regularly and minimise the risk of damage by avoiding noisy situations as much as possible.
Dr Sam Couth, from the Manchester Centre for Audiology and Deafness, who carried out the research, said: “This study shows quite clearly that young people who regularly go to loud clubs and concerts are more likely to have a degree of noise damage to their ears compared to those who lead quieter lives.
“Musicians may be especially at risk as loud noise exposure is a daily occurrence as part of their profession.”
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Humans are born with 12,000 hair cells in the ear, which decreases in number as they grow older. Dr Couth said that listening to loud music can accelerate the loss of these hair cells.
The researchers carried out specialised hearing tests on 123 people aged between 18-27.
They found hair cells in the cochlea, a spiral-shaped tube in the inner ear which helps in sound detection, functioned less efficiently in people who were exposed to the highest levels of recreational noise from venues such as clubs and concerts.
The scientists also speculate that the damage to hair cells can slow down the sound signals from the hearing nerve to the brain.
The researchers say the best way to minimise the risk of hearing damage is to avoid noisy situations altogether or to reduce the volume at its source. In cases where that is not possible, they recommend using hearing protection such as earplugs.
Dr Couth also suggests audiologists need to closely monitor the health of the hair cells in the cochlea to look for signs of early damage.
According to audiologists, the length of safe noise exposure is reduced by half for every three decibels increase in noise intensity – which equates to four hours of daily exposure for 88 decibels of noise, or two hours for 91 decibels, and so on.
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Dr Couth said: “Most amplified concerts exceed 100 decibels, meaning that people shouldn’t be exposed to that level of noise for more than 15 minutes without proper hearing protection.”
He added: “We know from previous research that only 6 per cent of musicians consistently wear hearing protection.
“That is why we urge all musicians, clubbers and concert-goers to wear earplugs designed specifically for listening to music so that the quality of the sound remains high, while the risk of hearing damage is reduced.”
Reader Q&A: Why can’t we close our ears like we can close our eyes?
Asked by: Emre Yorgancıgil, Istanbul, Turkey
We have evolved eyelids to protect our eyes from drying out or getting scratched. When you are sleeping, it is dark anyway, so there’s not much point in your eyes being open. But your ears have evolved as an important early warning mechanism, allowing you to wake up if, say, there’s a tiger growling in the undergrowth.
Some animals, including seals, otters and hippos, can close their ears, but this is to keep water out while swimming.
Amy is the Editorial Assistant at BBC Science Focus. Her BA degree specialised in science publishing and she has been working as a journalist since graduating in 2018. In 2020, Amy was named Editorial Assistant of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors. She looks after all things books, culture and media. Her interests range from natural history and wildlife, to women in STEM and accessibility tech.