by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition
This report in The Conversation, a UK website, discusses research showing that young adults who regularly attend loud clubs and rock concerts have evidence of hearing loss. The hearing loss found falls into the “hidden hearing loss” category, so-called because it is not detected by standard hearing tests (“pure tone audiometry”), but only by techniques currently used only in research. These tests found subtle hearing loss and decreases in auditory signals sent to the brain. There were equal amounts of damage in musicians and non-musicians alike. It looks like all the young adults had too much noise exposure.
Hidden hearing loss is now thought to be the cause of the “speech in noise” problem, where middle-aged and older adults have difficulty following one conversation among many in a noisy environment. That’s a complex task for the ear and the brain, requiring lots of auditory information to be processed centrally. When the ear and brain are damaged, that doesn’t happen.
The only quibble I have with The Conversation’s report is that the authors make the common mistake of citing occupational noise exposure levels when talking about noise exposure in the public. Occupational noise exposure limits don’t protect workers from noise-induced hearing loss, and the UK’s 85 decibel exposure limit cited is certainly not safe for hearing.
The only noise exposure level that prevents hearing loss is a daily average of 70 decibels, which is much less noise than most urban dwellers around the world get every day.
Prevention of noise-induced hearing loss–hidden or not–is simple: avoid loud noise exposure and use hearing protection if you can’t.