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Can Earbuds Lead To Hearing Loss?

Published: July 18, 2016

Earphone
PHOTO BY KEVIN TRAN

Edward Garcia is an audiologist and instructor of aural rehabilitation who worries about young America’s love affair with earbuds.

“Many teens suffer hearing loss because they leave earbuds in place for hours and sometimes overnight,” explained Garcia, a member of the Department of Speech-Language Pathology, who joined CSULB in the fall of 2015. “The complexity of auditory function is only beginning to be understood. Carpal tunnel syndrome was discounted at first because the victims were not swinging sledgehammers, they were sitting at keyboards. It was repetitive movement that caused the problem. The same is true for earbuds.

“They’re not giving their auditory system a chance to rest,” he added. “It is not the volume, it is the amount of exposure. Teens are exhibiting the same noise exposure clues we have noticed in older populations. This will be a new population who will initiate hearing loss earlier and it will progress longer. Will it change the age of onset for mental decline? It’s a scary picture we’re looking at.”

Garcia is investigating the link between sensory deprivation and cognitive decline.

“A person with a substantial amount of hearing loss is 10 times as likely to get dementia,” said Garcia, who received his B.A. in 1992 and his M.A. in 1994 from CSULB before earning his AuD from the University of Florida in 1996. “A clinician can notice hearing loss in a 15-year-old and recommend the teen start working on that loss right away because, over time, the probability of that teen’s cognitive decline is high. Research has shown that even a slight disconnect from one’s environment over a long period of time is enough to start this decline.”

The issue of noise exposure is nothing new but the modern victims are. “We generally see noise exposure in older adults because of industrial or recreational activities,” he said. “We’ve never seen a population with this level of early exposure before. Ringing in the ears is becoming more common in young people who don’t usually have a measureable hearing loss.”

While the dementia risk is becoming clearer, others are not.

“We know in current populations that if they experience these deficits, they are predisposed to many things,” he said. “It is not just the cognitive decline like dementia. If hearing loss is initiated early in a life span, it stands to reason that manifestations of that loss will happen earlier.”

Communication technology has been quick to respond. “There are apps that can help measure the level of sound in an environment,” he explained. “With this app, it is possible to measure the degree of exposure. It can help us to better understand the probability of noise-induced hearing loss. Remember, we all differ genetically. If your parents are aging and are already experiencing hearing loss, you are more predisposed. I counsel my patients, even the young ones, if both your parents started having some deficits in their 60s, you likely will have them as well. But they probably did not expose themselves as early. There weren’t any smart phones.”

The issue has gone global. “There is a lot of data coming from Europe and Asia because smart phones are everywhere. Everyone is using them,” he said. “There are studies that compare North America with Europe and they are all indicative of the same thing. People are using earbuds too much and too loud.”

Garcia points out that many parents are unaware that many devices have component settings that will limit loudness.

“Our perception of the loudness of a sound or the brightness of a room comes from acclimation,” he said. “But sound exposure is like the sweetener in your coffee. If you lower it slowly, eventually you’ll be drinking a lot less sweetener. We simply shouldn’t have this much sound exposure.”

Garcia believes education must play a big role in dealing with this issue.

“If individuals are made aware of the relationship between noise exposures and hearing loss and the relationship between losses and almost-certain cognitive decline, they will make better choices,” he said. “It is important to incorporate those realities into education at any age, even as early as middle school. It is a simple lesson. If you use earbuds too much, you won’t hear very well later. If you do not hear very well, your brain will not work very well.”

He advises teens concerned about their hearing to carry ear plugs.

“If you feel exhausted or have ringing after noise exposure, then that situation, in your case, was probably too much for you,” he said. “Any time when the environment is so loud you have to scream to communicate, this is an environment where you should protect your ears. The duration is critical. A few minutes at a concert is not a big deal. But if you’re going to be there for a couple of hours, you ought to be concerned. The time I am most concerned is when someone my age can hear the sound coming from a student’s earbuds. Then I know for a fact that the decibel level is too high. Using noise-suppression headphones may also help keep sound levels down.”