Walk around a big city during rush hour and you’ll see an army of people sporting large, cushiony headsets and delicate ear buds. This trend is contributing to a new and growing problem: hearing loss in young people.
While many attribute hearing loss to aging, it’s becoming more and more common among millennials and members of Gen Z. Listening to music, podcasts, audiobooks or whatever you’re into through headphones for hours, with no limits on volume, can really damage your hearing in ways people never experienced decades ago.
Studies show that about 10 percent of millennials and 17 percent of members of Gen Z have some level of hearing loss caused by excessive headphone usage or loud environments, like concerts or fall football games. Just this spring, the World Health Organization warned more than 1 billion young people worldwide are at risk of hearing loss. The WHO predicted one in every ten people will have damaged hearing by 2050.
“Unsurprisingly, millennials and Generation Z have been shaped by the unprecedented amount of technological innovation and the wide availability of information and entertainment in the world today,” says Dr. Najia Shaikh, founder and medical director at One Skin Clinic in London.
As hearing loss becomes more and more common in young patients, healthcare providers are seeking institutional support for earlier annual hearing screenings — and spreading awareness about how young people can protect their hearing sooner rather than later.
The health of your hearing
While headphones are a huge culprit, a significant number of other things can damage your hearing. These include bacterial and viral infections like measles, mumps or meningitis, ear trauma and, surprisingly, more than 200 different medications. A family history of ear problems can also predispose someone to issues with their hearing.
Your ears’ abilities also simply worsen as you age. Tiny hair cells around your inner ear pick up sound waves and transport them to your brain. Over time, cumulative exposure to the sounds you experience damages these tiny hair cells. That’s when hearing loss occurs.
Before the rise of headphones and other devices, this deterioration used to happen a lot more gradually. But now, if you wear headphones too often or listen to sounds at too high a volume, you’re damaging these tiny hair cells at a much quicker rate.
Take this blogger’s experience as an example. After years of headphone use, he started to experience high-pitched ringing in his ears and was later diagnosed with tinnitus, a hearing condition that impacts roughly 15 million Americans. We’re even starting to see the effects of this rise in technology on kids as young as 6. The CDC says an estimated 12.5 percent of children and adolescents between the ages of 6 and 19 have already incurred permanent hearing damage from excessive noise exposure.
There are two key types of hearing loss. Some people experience a combination of the two.
- Sensorineural (involves inner ear) occurs when your inner ear can’t deliver sound to the brain. This can stem from factors like aging, noise damage, and the side effects of drugs.
- Conductive (involves outer or middle ear) means sounds cannot get through the outer and middle ear. You’re experiencing conductive hearing loss if you have excess ear wax buildup due to allergies, or if you ruptured your ear drums.
Like other medical conditions, hearing loss occurs on a spectrum. If you can’t hear sounds ranging from 26 to 40 decibels (dB), which you might experience at a visit to a quiet library, you are experiencing moderate hearing loss. People with severe hearing loss can’t hear sounds ranging from 71 to 90 dB, the volume of a group conversation or a lawn mower. And those with profound hearing loss can’t catch sounds above 91 dB.
Hearing experts out
Despite the scale of the issue, guidance around getting your ears checked is often murky at best. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force says there isn’t enough evidence to recommend hearing screenings for adults above the age of 50. As a general rule, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends children get tested before they enter school.
The CDC also recommends adults get their hearing checked consistently if they work in a noisy environment, take medicines that put them at risk, enjoy noisy activities or simply notice that something is off with their hearing.
If you are straining to hear people talk, asking people to repeat themselves more often or turning up the volume on your music, you’re likely in the market for a hearing screening with an audiologist, says Dr. Leslie Soiles, chief audiologist at HearingLife.
Soiles says organizations like the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and the Campaign for Better Hearing are pushing to educate others about the need for routine hearing assessments by an audiologist, regardless of age or occupation. Just like we take care of other healthcare needs like getting an eye exam, dental check-up and annual physical, caring for hearing should be prioritized.
These day-to-day steps can also help you protect your hearing from further damage over the long term:
- Invest in a device that can alert you to whether your listening habits are damaging. The WHO created a list of standards for your listening devices, and Apple now has a feature on many of its devices that alerts users to extended periods of high-volume listening. (For context, most music players today can produce sounds up to 120 decibels. At this level, you can experience hearing loss in 75 minutes.)
- As a rule of thumb, try to use over-the-ear headphones rather than ear buds. Ear buds deliver sound directly into your ear canal, which can be more damaging.
- Protect your hearing at loud events. Most activities like concerts, air shows and sporting events involve decibel levels that can harm your hearing. If you love these activities but haven’t used hearing protection in the past, try bringing ear plugs or other ear protection, which can reduce noise by at least 18 decibels.
- Avoid using cotton swabs, bobby pins, paperclips or any other items smaller than your elbow to clean or scratch your ears. The safest way to clear earwax is to ask your doctor to do it.