Hearing management

Updated 14 December 2017

More music-loving teens suffering permanent hearing damage

The number of teenagers experiencing permanent hearing damage is increasing at an alarming rate, prompting a leading Canadian researcher to warn of the dangers of listening to loud music.


New research suggests an alarming level of early, permanent hearing loss in young people who are exposed to loud music, prompting a warning from a leading Canadian researcher in the field.

'Risky listening habits'

"It's a growing problem and I think it's going to get worse," says Larry Roberts of McMaster's Department of Psychology, Neuroscience and Behaviour, the only Canadian author of a paper published this week in the journal Scientific Reports.

"My personal view is that there is a major public health challenge coming down the road in terms of difficulties with hearing."

Read: Symptoms of hearing loss

The researchers interviewed and performed detailed hearing tests on a group of 170 students between 11 and 17 years old, learning that almost all of them engage in "risky listening habits" – at parties, clubs and on personal listening devices.

More than a quarter of the students are already experiencing chronic, persistent tinnitus – a ringing or buzzing in the ears that more typically affects people over 50.

Even though the students could still hear as well as their peers, those experiencing tinnitus were more likely to have a significantly reduced tolerance for loud noise, which is considered a sign of hidden permanent damage to the nerves that are used in processing sound, damage that can foretell serious hearing impairment later in life.

'Hidden hearing loss'

Roberts explained that when the auditory nerves are damaged, brain cells increase their sensitivity to their remaining inputs, which can make ordinary sounds seem louder.

Increased loudness perception is an indication of nerve injury that cannot be detected by the audiogram, the standard clinical test for hearing ability.

Neuroscience research indicates that such "hidden hearing loss" caused by exposure to loud sounds in the early years deepens over the life span, worsening one's hearing ability later in life.

Read: Cancer drug reverses hearing loss

"The levels of sound exposure that are quite commonplace in our environment, particularly among youth, appear to be sufficient to produce hidden cochlear injuries." says Roberts. "The message is, 'Protect your ears.'"

Roberts worked closely with Brazilian researcher Tanit Ganz Sanchez – who led the study – and her colleagues at the University of São Paulo School of Medicine. The data they gathered was especially rich and detailed, Roberts said, creating a more complete picture of what's happening to young people who may not be aware that they are hurting themselves when they listen to loud music.

Persistent tinnitus

It's common after listening to loud music to experience a ringing in the ears for the next day or so, Roberts said. More than half the students in the study said it had happened to them.

This brief tinnitus is an early warning sign, according to Roberts. Testing showed that 28 per cent of the study participants had already developed persistent tinnitus.

The 28% of participants with persistent tinnitus also showed heightened sensitivity to loud sounds, indicating that the neurons that transmit sounds to the brain may have been damaged, said Roberts.

While some other forms of hearing loss can be repaired, such nerve damage cannot be undone. The only solution, he says, is prevention.

Read more:

1.1 billion youths at risk of hearing loss

Club music: how the ears survive

Deafness shaped Beethoven's music



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Dr Kara Hoffman graduated from UCT in 2004, thereafter she completed her year of community service in Durban. In 2010 she completed her Masters Degree in Paediatric Aural Rehabilitation from UKZN. In 2016, she became a Doctor of Audiology through the University of Arizona (ATSU). Dr Hoffman and her partner Lauren Thompson opened a fully diagnostic audiology practice called Thompson & Hoffman Audiology Inc. In 2011 with world-class technology and equipment to be able to offer the broad public all hearing-related services including hearing testing for adults and babies, vestibular (balance) assessments and rehabilitation, industrial audiology, hearing devices, central auditory processing assessments for school-aged children, school screening, neonatal hearing screening programmes at Alberlito and Parklands Hospital, cochlear implants and other implantable devices, medicolegal assessments and advanced electroacoustic assessments of hearing. Thompson and Hoffman Audiology Inc. are based at Alberlito Hospital in Ballito, St Augustines Hospital in Durban and at 345 Essenwood Road, Musgrave. The practices are all wheelchair friendly. There are three audiologists that practice from Thompson & Hoffman – including Dr Kara Hoffman, Lauren Thompson & Minette Lister. The practice boasts professional, highly qualified, and extensive diagnostic services where all your hearing healthcare needs can be met. The additional licensing in vestibular assessment and rehabilitation, paediatric rehabilitation and cochlear implantation places this practice in one of the top specialist audiological positions in South Africa, with a wealth of experience in all clinical areas of audiology and is a very well respected and sought-after practice.

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