Hearing Loss Isn’t Just About Aging

Teen listening to music on earbuds too loudly.

Hearing loss isn’t just for the aging, anymore. Granted, the two never had an exclusive relationship. It was always possible to find your hearing wane earlier in life–but these were usually outliers. A report from the World Health Organization (Who? Oh. WHO) and the United Nations suggests that over 1 billion people worldwide ages 12-35 are at risk of developing hearing loss.

That… is no longer an outlier. When 1 billion young people develop hearing loss like that, we’re looking at a brand new normal.

What’s causing our younger population to develop hearing loss?

It used to be that, unless you spend your days in a loud and noisy environment, damage to your hearing would develop fairly slowly, so we tend to think about it as a side effect of aging. That’s why you aren’t surprised when your grandfather wears a hearing aid.

The surprise, then, is when you see your grandson with a hearing aid. According to WHO, that’s exactly what’s going to start happening.

Blame technology for escalating the hearing loss epidemic

What’s caused this shift? Technology takes some of the blame, of course! And smartphones in particular. That’s because young people are doing what they love to do: watching movies, listening to music, chatting with friends–and using earbuds or headphones to do it all. The problem is that, like most of us, they have no idea what level of volume (and what duration of that volume) is damaging to their ears.

So, there’s an entire generation of young people around the world (at least a billion of them, as the WHO report states) who are slowly but surely damaging their ability to hear. That’s a big problem–one that’s going to cost billions of dollars in terms of treatment and loss of productivity in the economy.

A common myth about hearing loss

Even young people are wise enough to avoid incredibly loud noises (even if they can’t stay off my lawn). But the nature of hearing damage isn’t popularly understood–most people aren’t going to know that medium intensity sounds can also damage your hearing if the exposure is long enough.

Of course, most people around the world–especially young people–aren’t really thinking about the dangers of hearing loss (ah, to be young). They’re used to associating hearing loss with aging, anyway–so why worry about it when you have so much youth?

But according to WHO, those in this 12-35-year-old age group may be exposing their ears to irreversible damage.

Preventing hearing loss

The problem is particularly widespread because the behavior is prevalent. That’s why some hearing specialists have recommended solutions that focus on providing mobile device users with additional information:

  • You’d be notified when the volume reaches dangerous intensity.
  • Warnings would activate when the volume reaches dangerous durations (it’s not just the volume of a sound that can cause damage–it’s how long the sound lasts).
  • Built-in parental settings would allow parents to more closely monitor volume and adjust it to more healthy levels.

And that’s just the start. There are plenty of technological ways to get kids and teenagers to start paying more attention to the health of their hearing. But some of these changes will necessitate a cultural shift as well (getting teenagers to think of themselves as less than invulnerable in any way is a heavy lift, but it can be done).

Turn the volume down

If there’s one thing us old folks supposedly like to do, it’s telling kids to turn down the volume. But in this case, that favorite pastime is actually good advice. The most significant way to mitigate damage to your hearing is to minimize the volume at which you listen to your mobile device. That’s true whether you’re 15, 35, or 70.

Smartphones aren’t going anywhere

Most of the damage to youth hearing is caused by the way they use smartphones: listening to music too loudly, chatting with friends at an unreasonable volume… you know, generally being kids.

And smartphones aren’t going anywhere. It’s not just kids that are attached to them, it’s everyone. So we’ve got to come to terms with the fact that hearing loss is no longer associated with aging–it’s associated with technology.

This means we’re going to need to change the way we talk about, prevent, and treat hearing loss.


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