As noise-induced hearing loss approaches epidemic proportions, it’s worth finding some quiet in your everyday life. Learn how to protect your ears from all the clamor, starting now.

By Sunny Sea Gold
April 20, 2020
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It’s no surprise that we all get a little hard of hearing when we’re older. The ear’s ability to process sound naturally changes over time. But experts say that today, hearing loss is occurring at younger and younger ages, and they suspect our earphone habits (listening at too-loud volumes for too long) may be to blame.

Loud noise can damage the hairlike sensory receptors, a.k.a. hair cells, in your inner ear that transform sound waves into electrical signals and send them on to your brain for interpretation.

Photo: CHIARA ZARMATI

So how much sound is too much? Generally, noise that registers at 85 decibels—think heavy city traffic or the cacophony in a crowded restaurant—is enough to harm hair cells after about two hours. But even a few minutes of sound at 100 decibels—the max volume on some smartphones—can do it.

Duration matters as much as volume, says Erick Gallun, PhD, an associate professor of otolaryngology at the Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine in Portland. Both moderately loud noise for a long time (say, the Spotify playlist that gets you through the workday) and loud noise for a short time (hello, spin class) batter the hair cells. And once those cells are damaged, they don’t regenerate—meaning you permanently lose some of your ability to hear. You might not notice a difference at first, but over time, the cumulative damage is hard to ignore.

It may involve more than frustrating conversations. Hearing loss can cause cognitive issues later in life, too, because it overtaxes the brain. “If a signal is difficult to hear, you can still work it out if you concentrate on it, but then you can’t concentrate on what it means,” says Kevin H. Franck, PhD, director of audiology at Massachusetts Eye and Ear. Indeed, research suggests there is a connection between hearing loss and dementia.

While there’s unfortunately nothing you can do to reverse damage to your hearing, you can take steps to prevent further harm, so you hear better for longer. Here are a few strategies that will help bolster this important sense.

Hands off the volume button

“As you listen to something, your ears become adapted to it,” says Gallun, but resist the urge to turn it up. It’s easy to reach risky decibels without realizing it. If you’ve been tuned in for hours and find yourself wanting to pump up the volume, take a 5- or 10-minute break. “What’s happening is that you actually use up the neurotransmitters that the hair cells use to communicate with your auditory nerve. Your body needs time to formulate [more] neurotransmitters and get them into the hair cells,” Gallun explains.

Upgrade your gear

Do you typically listen to your devices in loud places—like on planes or trains, or in busy cafés? You might be cranking up your music just to hear it over the surrounding din, says Gallun. Consider investing in a pair of noise-canceling headphones or earbuds so you can enjoy your tunes at a lower volume. Also, when using earbuds, wear both of them. Your ears work together to send messages to the brain. If you only have one earbud in, you may be tempted to nudge up the sound, says Gallun.

Set a limit

There’s isn’t one golden rule for a safe volume level since the intensity of sound produced by smartphones and tablets varies by brand and model. But one thing you can do to reduce the risk of damaging your ears is set a maximum volume on your gadget. Look for this option in the Settings menu, under Music or Sound. Or you can download an app like Volume Control or My Volume.

Check your environment

If you have a Series 4 or newer Apple Watch, it comes with the Noise app, which measures the sound around you and alerts you if it poses a risk to your ears. There are also free apps, like SoundPrint and the NIOSH Sound Level Meter, that estimate how loud your location is. If your local wine bar is more than 85 decibels, you might want to ask the manager to lower the music, or find a new happy-hour spot.

Use ear protection

The sound level at concerts can cause hearing damage in just five minutes. “I recommend musicians’ earplugs—they take things down by 20 decibels, and you’ll actually hear the music more clearly because these earplugs cut out distortion,” says Gallun. If you forget your ear protection, check the venue’s concessions stand or bar. “They often sell earplugs for cheap,” Gallun says, “or even just give them away.” Make ear protection part of your hearing hygiene, advises Franck: “You put on a jacket when it’s cold; you put in earplugs when it’s loud.”

Take a quick self-test

“There are free apps that can do a decent job of testing your hearing in the comfort of your own living room,” says Franck. He recommends hearWHO from the World Health Organization, or the Mimi Hearing Test app. If your results indicate any deficit, make an appointment with your primary care doc or an audiologist for a follow-up.

This article originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of Health Magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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