The Earbud Epidemic

Two designs of iPod earphones. The current ver...

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A new study shows that one in five Americans, 20%, has some form of hearing loss. That is a huge number and much larger than anyone had previously thought. According to the study, in the Annals of Internal Medicine, that means 48 million Americans hear so poorly that they cannot understand a companion in a crowded restaurant. Until this study, estimates had been that the number of Americans with this level of hearing loss was less than half the number found or under 10%.

The study looked at Americans 12 years and older who have had their hearing tested rather than previous studies that relied on self-reported data. This study used the World Health Organization’s definition for hearing loss, which is not being able to hear sounds of 25 decibels or less at the frequencies for speaking. And it found that of those 20%, 13% had hearing loss at that level in both ears. The remainder had it in just one.

The study draws no conclusions about the reasons for this – nor does it state that this is something that has changed over time. It is well known that people’s hearing deteriorates over time and it is also well-known that people can damage their hearing by listening to sounds at inappropriate volume levels for periods of time. That’s why people protect their ears when working with loud machinery, etc.

But there is one thing that has changed a great deal in society over the last thirty years – the rise of the earbud in conjunction with iPods and mobile phones. And people play them very loud. You can hear people on the train feet away from you playing music that everyone else can hear even though they are wearing earbuds. And earbuds are very effective at channeling all that sound straight into the listener’s ear. It would be worth looking at just how much damage earbuds can do to hearing and what the appropriate safe volume levels are for earbuds (and headphones).


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