Wearing ruby red metallic headphones, a young man boards the uptown N train, bobbing his head up and down to the sounds of Drake’s vocal percussion. Sighs and groans spill from a few passengers who had hoped for a quiet morning ride to the city as the sounds emitting from his large headphones are loud enough to compete with the train announcements. While the young man is enjoying the music with his noise-cancelling headphones—Beats by Dre—he doesn’t realize that he’s also harming this ears.
Thanks to the release of the iPod back in 2001, people have been able to listen to their favorite music on-the-go more than ever. And now because high quality headphones have become popular in the mainstream, no longer just among DJs, people are listening to their jams for hours on end, pumping straight into their ear canal. That young man on the train, 21-year-old Jamie Purchase, explains, “These headphones improve the listening experience for me and allow me to hear music with the same level of emotion the artist originally intended.”
Yet Purchase and thousands of others like him may be unknowingly ruining their hearing. These noise-amplifying headphones produce louder sounds, causing irreversible damage, according to the National Institute of Health.
“All MP3 players are capable of putting out high enough levels to cause hearing loss,” says audiologist Cory Portnuff, who researched the impact of MP3 players on hearing as part of his doctoral dissertation at the University of Colorado.
Long or repeated exposure to sounds at or above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss, according to the NIH. An iPod reaches about 103 decibels at its loudest.
Hair cells in the inner ear convert the mechanical energy of sound into electrical energy transmitted through nerves to the brain. The louder the sound, the shorter the time it takes to damage the hair cells in the ear. These hair cells can be destroyed through any loud noise close to the ear. Repeated or continuous exposure to loud noise can cause gradual and cumulative damage, according to the NIH.
Simone Carot Collins, senior sound therapy consultant and owner of Totally Sound Health what and where is that, developed substantial hearing loss as a teenager because of loud music.
“Practicing with the organ turned up loud, despite repeated protests from my mother that I would damage my hearing if I didn’t turn it down, and listening to loud rock music on my walkman meant that I had sustained noise-induced hearing loss by the time I was 14 years old,” she says. “My family complained that I was deaf. I thought that they were joking, but they were quite serious.”
Collins’ passion for music began when she was six years old, but she had to give it up her dream as a musician at 20 years old when she learned her ears were not responding to certain frequencies. After being referred to an ear, nose and throat specialist, the Australia native found sound therapy as a way to listen to her favorite tunes again.
Sound therapy uses specially recorded music and spoken stories to improve hearing loss. After reading a book on sound therapy when she was 22, Collins noticed her hearing improved after a couple of months, and decided to become a sound therapy consultant to help other young people with noise-induced hearing loss.
“A sound therapy program can help rehabilitate the ears. It is the only thing I have come across that does actually improve one’s natural hearing ability,” Collins advises. “Sound therapy is a far trendier option than wearing hearing aids too.”
People often don’t realize they have a hearing loss. A study by the University of Florida showed that up to one-quarter of college students tested suffered from some form of hearing loss. The research included 56 students, average age 21, who were asked to assess their own hearing and then underwent hearing tests. One-quarter of the students who believed they had normal hearing did not. “The difficult part of measuring hearing loss caused by new technology is that it takes years of exposure to have damage that is detectable,” Portnuff says. “Only now, five years after MP3 players became commonly used, are we beginning to see the effects of sustained use of these devices.”
If you can hear someone else’s music while they’re listening to an iPod, they’re doing damage to their ears, according to Dr. Steven D. Rauch, a professor of otolaryngology at Harvard noted in a New York Times article.
Another GenY-friendly way to discover and treat noise-induced hearing loss is The Good Ear app. This iPhone app uses technology that can analyze and treat hearing loss. It uses “Threshold Sound Conditioning” (TSC) therapy to target the sound frequencies where hearing is the weakest. The company claims the therapy can improve your hearing after 14 30-minute daily treatments. There are also sound-limiting headphones like the Ultimate Ears Loud Enough Volume Limiting Headphones that play songs at a 75 percent volume level.
“While the damage is subtle early on, it is irreversible, completely preventable,” Portnuff says.