Hear This!

One in five people between the ages of 12 and 19 are experiencing slight hearing loss. 

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At least 1 out of every 5 of teens has already experienced some sort of hearing loss. Find out why—and learn how to protect your own ears.

You and your friends are leaving a concert on a Friday night. When you get outside, your ears are ringing. You have to shout to be heard. But by morning, your hearing is totally back to normal. So no harm done . . . right?

Not quite. Temporary buzzing may be easy to ignore, but repeated exposure to loud noise will eventually cause serious­—and irreversible—hearing loss. Take it from Matthew Brady of Foxborough, Massachusetts.

Four years ago, at age 16, Matthew started walking and running on a treadmill every day during the summer—all the while blasting his favorite tunes on his iPod. Then one day, he took out his headphones and couldn’t hear a thing.

Some of Matthew’s hearing returned an hour or two later, but in the noisy school cafeteria that fall, he struggled to hear his friends talk. That’s when he knew something was seriously wrong.

Volume Trauma

After seeing several doctors, Matthew was diagnosed with mild hearing loss. The word mild, however, can be misleading. Now in college, Matthew has to sit in the front row of his classes, to be sure he will be able to hear his teachers. He knows that teens are reluctant to turn the volume down before it’s too late, but “considering what I’ve been through, the alternative is worse.”

The sad truth is, stories like Matthew’s are becoming more common. A new study conducted by researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston estimates that one in five people between the ages of 12 and 19 are experiencing slight hearing loss, and one in 20 have mild hearing loss, like Matthew. These numbers are at an all-time high, experts say.

Why? Up to 75 percent of teens today own an iPod or other MP3 device. Many are listening to music on a near-constant basis, often turning the volume up to unsafe levels. So the exposure to noise is louder—and longer—than in any previous generation.

Bad Vibrations

What makes volume such a problem? Marilee Potthoff is the director of outreach and education for the House Research Institute, an organization devoted to hearing loss. She explains the workings of the ear like this:

When you listen to music, sound travels into your ear to your eardrum, causing it to vibrate. The vibrations travel through the bones in your middle ear to your inner ear, which is lined with tiny hair cells. These hair cells transmit the sound to your brain.

When you listen to loud music, a membrane near the cells vibrates violently. Over time, the cells become damaged and eventually disintegrate.

You’re born with about 15,000 of these sensory cells. That may sound like a lot right now, but they have to last you a lifetime. And when they’re damaged to the point that they can’t do their job, that’s it—they’re done forever.

The scariest part of noise damage is that it’s often not identified until it’s too late. You may not notice that you’re losing hearing until your music starts to sound weird or your friends need to yell for you to hear them.

Dr. Michelle Kraskin is an audiologist—an expert in hearing disorders—at Cornell Medical College. Often she sees patients who tell her they wish they’d taken better care of their ears while they still could. “The damage you’re doing now,” she says, “is damage for a lifetime.”

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