Hearing loss has been in the news a lot lately – and it’s because of a big name in the entertainment business.
You’ve probably heard about Brian Johnson, the lead singer of AC/DC, and his decision to quit the band’s current world tour. If you haven’t heard about it, you might (erroneously!) be thinking he simply retired. But, as he notes in a recent Rolling Stone article, Brian Johnson left AC/DC because of hearing loss.
Here’s how he put it:
“It’s like a young sports player getting an injury … I feel sorry for [athletes], being 24, 25 and they have an injury and it ends their career. And it’s an awful thing. But I’m lucky. I’m 68. … And I’ve had a pretty good run. I’ve been in one of best bands in the world.”
In what he described as his “darkest day,” he made the decision to leave the band and the tour because of his hearing loss (read the Rolling Stone article and his statement here).
His hearing loss has become so severe that he can no longer properly hear the instruments/band. Yes, it is sad and yes, I do feel and empathize with Brian, because I know the emotional consequences of hearing loss. But for me, as an audiologist, I was THRILLED; because he spoke out and created awareness about the dangers of being exposed to loud music, and how important it is to protect our hearing.
See, the thing is, hearing loss doesn’t hurt. Not in the same way it hurts when you break a bone or stub your toe. When you are exposing your ears to loud noises, including loud music (and including loud music played through earphones), for a prolonged amount of time we can permanently damage the little cells inside our cochleas.
What is even more interesting is that with loud music, we often experience pleasure. And if we feel good, we are less apt to think we might be damaging our hearing. Noise, on the other hand, tends to be unpleasant and we will usually have an adverse reaction to loud noise, so we might block our ears if a loud firetruck goes by.
Hearing is a very complex process, which involves multiple systems and which I will not explain here….but the message I want to put out there is that once those little cells die, they cannot grow back. They are gone. Forever. Human beings do not have the capacity to regenerate the cells inside the cochlea. As we get older, these cells will naturally die as a normal part of aging – but what many people don’t realize is that exposure to loud sounds, including loud music, can cause these cells to die prematurely.
Brian Johnson is 68 years old, and some 68 year olds have some degree of hearing loss, but I would be ready to put money on the fact that being in a band for most of his adult life has significantly accelerated his hearing loss. I also read that he is a race car driver and that one of his eardrums perforated from the intense noise of the engine – so I am confident that in his case, noise exposure AND loud music have contributed to his hearing loss.
I don’t know his type of hearing loss, there is no mention of it in his statement – but my audiologist-brain knows that it must be pretty severe for him to make that decision. I feel for him, as I know how difficult this must have been for him to accept. This was his life! So all of you reading this, especially you young ones blasting the music in your earphones – noise or music induced hearing loss IS preventable, with appropriate earphones, ear protection, musicians earplugs, ear monitors, etc.
My favourite analogy for the effect of loud noise/music on hair cells is one my university professor told me, many many years ago, and it goes like this:
If you are walking somewhere, and you discover that cutting across the lawn, rather than following the sidewalk, gets you to your destination quicker, you opt for this new path. The first time you walk on the grass, the blades will fold under your feet, but eventually they spring back up. This might also happen the second, third, 10th time you walk along the same path. It depends how often you walk on that same path.
But after a while, you will start noticing that the blades of grass no longer spring back up…..in fact, they just stop growing. The busier the “traffic” gets on this path, the quicker the grass with stop growing. This analogy can be applied to the cells inside our cochleas. The more they are overstimulated by loud noise or music, the more susceptible they are to permanent damage and death. And unlike the grass, which could grow back if you plant new seeds….our little cells will never be able to grow back.
Andrée Boissonneault is an Audiological Affairs Specialist at Widex. Her background in audiology includes audiological research, clinical work, and experience with several hearing aid manufacturers. She lives in Copenhagen, Denmark.
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