Chances are by the time you reach age 20, you already know if you have hearing loss. It may be due to chronic childhood ear infections, or being born with a hearing deficit. However, there’s another reason for hearing loss to start in your 20s.
Hearing loss can start in your 20s, especially with exposure to loud sounds, such as at a concert, or if you work in a noisy environment.
Personal listening devices – especially when played at a volume to block out the world – are a prime cause of hearing loss.
Consult a healthcare provider if you worry you’re losing your hearing.
It is estimated that two to three babies out of 1,000 are born with a detectable level of hearing loss in at least one ear. To make matters worse, about one-quarter of these children grow up without a specific cause of hearing loss, which usually affects the cochlear nerve causing sensorineural hearing loss, which is permanent.
One of the causes of hearing loss at a young age may be because of an inherited disease known as otosclerosis. This is a complex disease passed down through a single gene.
Otosclerosis can run in families and be autosomal dominant, meaning it may not be avoidable. It is a form of conductive hearing loss involving one of the small bones in the middle ear called the stapes and, in many cases, it can be improved with either hearing aids or surgery. It is fairly uncommon.
But the reason for the question, “Are you among the one billion young people at risk for hearing loss?” is about noise. Noise exposure is the leading cause of hearing loss, particularly in people in their teens and 20s.
Research about noise exposure in young people
Researchers from the University of South Carolina recently published a systematic review to estimate the prevalence of unsafe listening practices. Their recommendations were for noise levels not to exceed 85 decibels throughout a 40-hour workweek.
The study examined databases spanning over 20 years, which reported results from unsafe listening practices in people aged 12 to 34 years of age. It was estimated that between one-quarter and one-half of people in this age group had unsafe noise level exposure, including from personal listening devices and loud entertainment venues.
Because there were so many uncontrolled variables, the number of people affected may be higher than one billion.
The study concluded there is an urgent need for safe listening habits worldwide to prevent hearing loss from loud noise exposure. Hearing loss can be progressive, cumulative, and permanent.
We already know through animal research studies that loud noise exposure can cause physiological damage called temporary threshold shifts. In plain language, this is the decreased hearing and ringing in our ears we experience after being at a loud music concert or being exposed to a loud noise like an explosion.
Repeated temporary threshold shifts can be combined with what is known as “hidden hearing loss” or direct damage to the inner ear and cochlear nerve. Temporary threshold shifts combined with hidden hearing loss can result in irreversible hearing loss, the researchers said.
In other words, repeated loud noise exposure can be the number one reason for hearing loss in young people, particularly as they enter middle age. Those who are at increased risk may include musicians, concertgoers, and construction, automotive and factory workers without safe hearing protection.
What can I do to protect my hearing?
Turn down the volume
Of course, this is easier said than done. The elephant in the room is the portable headphones, earbuds, and high-fidelity smartphones we all carry in our pockets. Some smartphones now can limit sound intensity. Some manufacturers have considered automatic limits. Most hearing aids can wirelessly connect to smartphones using Bluetooth technology and use these limits.
Earbuds are now designed to deliver high-quality sound, the speakers are closer to the eardrum, and they even have sound canceling which blocks out outside noise for best listening. Young people use these devices for gaming, too. The key is that most young people underestimate the level of sound intensity, or they purposely turn up the volume to block out the world.
Taking a break from the loud noise can be challenging. Asking a young person to put down the music or leave the smartphone at the door is like asking someone to not eat at Thanksgiving. The best solution is likely moderation and common sense. Using sound protection such as foam earplugs or the like is a good protection method. Of course, don’t use earbuds with loud music when mowing the lawn. That defeats the purpose and probably worsens the noise exposure. At loud concerts, it may be best to exercise some distance from the massive loudspeakers.
In addition to the foam earplugs mentioned, there are many other methods of hearing protection. Musicians can work with audiologists in getting high-fidelity earplug devices, which can both protect their hearing and improve their performance. Form-fitted earplug protection can be crafted for other uses such as hunting, factory or construction, airline services, and more.
How do I know if I need help with hearing loss?
This is often embarrassing. There is a great deal of denial about hearing loss at any age.
Probably the greatest fear that a young person has is to be told they should either stop listening at high volumes, which may mean altering their work or school, or worse, that they already have enough hearing loss that they need hearing aids.
There are two main goals of hearing amplification. The first is language. The second is providing environmental cues. Hearing aids or hearing amplification devices have come a long way technologically and should not be feared at any age.
Hearing tests have become more mainstream and some can be taken online. This may not be perfect, but online tests are often a good start as a quick and easy screening assessment.
The emphasis should be for everyone to be aware of the risks of loud noise exposure even at a young age. Hearing loss may be gradual and difficult to determine. Avoiding being part of the one billion with hearing loss should be everyone’s goal.