Unsafe listening practices are no laughing matter

                                                            By Joseph Cerquone

Joseph Cerquone
Joseph Cerquone

My co-worker sounded surprised. The preceding weekend, she told me, she had watched a newscaster put down New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plans to launch a campaign encouraging listening to personal audio technology safely. According to my colleague, the newscaster indicated that the mayor should focus on more important matters.

No doubt a whole host of issues in the Big Apple warrant attention. But anyone who dismisses the potential harm that young people may be doing to their hearing may want to think again. About the same time the Bloomberg administration was calling attention to the risk of listening too loudly, a study came out of India  that found hearing loss occurring at younger ages than had previously been thought. Researchers identified “the propensity for listening to media with the volume higher than the human ear can tolerate” as a primary cause.

The recent news from India was by no means the first of its kind. A study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in 2010 reported a 5% increase in teen hearing loss, and cited exposure to loud music as a risk factor.

Admittedly, no study yet attributes widespread hearing loss solely and directly to high volume listening to technology. But part of the challenge in getting people to be more careful to protect their hearing is the insidious way that hearing loss typically occurs: gradually, often unnoticeably, over years, as repeated and lengthy high volume exposure accrues.

Hearing health experts don’t need a study to know it’s unhealthy to blast noise (i.e., loud music) into the ear for hours daily. Long before Mayor Bloomberg got involved, the American-Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) and others, including the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, launched public education efforts that encouraged listening to technology safely.

 

THE STAKES ARE HIGH

What is at stake? Hearing loss can profoundly limit a person’s ability to succeed academically, at work, and socially.

The study in JAMA pointed out that in school-aged children, even slight hearing loss can create a need for speech therapy, auditory training, and special accommodations.

Also, researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine have reported that seniors with hearing loss are significantly more likely to develop dementia over time than those who retain their hearing.

Meanwhile, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) projects the lifetime cost from hearing loss at $2.1 billion just for those people born in the year 2000 alone.Further testimony to the gravity of the problem is provided by the hundreds of readers who bombarded ASHA Chief Staff Officer for Audiology Neil J. DiSarno, PhD, with questions in response to his hearing health advice post on a New York Times blog.

 

GOOD HEARING DESERVES MORE RESPECT

Still, as someone who has spent years raising the public profile of the professionals who treat communication disorders and the people who suffer from them, I did not find my co-worker’s account of the dismissive newscaster all that surprising. It should be, though, since the ability to communicate—to hear and to speak—is vital.

However, findings like those of a recent AARP-ASHA poll of AARP members’ hearing health illuminate how caring for and protecting the ability to communicate too often “get no respect” despite their importance.

The poll showed that hearing tests ranked next to last in frequency among health tests that AARP members had received in the preceding five years. Since the survey also showed that a significant number of AARP members have untreated hearing loss, it begs questions about what people might have been spared had hearing testing been a priority.

It is also telling that hearing aids–“complex medical devices,” as DiSarno notes–are increasingly being sold online like your average wardrobe accessories. That development suggests a misguided belief that what’s behind a hearing aid purchase—presumably a hearing problem–is not worth a comprehensive audiological exam best suited for identifying appropriate care–care that may or may not take the form of a hearing aid.

I know first-hand that lack of awareness lies behind the mounting survey findings about the unsafe usage of personal audio technology. I’ll never forget one young woman we stopped for a person-on-the street interview for ASHA’s campaign. Asked if she was concerned about losing her hearing, she shrugged dismissively and replied that researchers would restore her hearing to its original state.

“All of this new technology is great,” Patricia Moisan, an ASHA audiologist, explained in an interview“Unfortunately, there are lots of kids who don’t know how to use it properly.” Moisan works in schools and sees all too many young people listening to music unsafely. She encourages them to cut back on volume and listening time. She added, “Some are listening for hours at very high volumes. That isn’t good.” She urged parents to monitor their kids’ usage and set good examples.

That same newscaster who made light of Mayor Bloomberg’s safe listening campaign would probably dismiss Moisan as a worrywart. But I wonder what he would think of the large signature-covered Safe Listening Pledge hanging in the meeting room next to my office at ASHA headquarters. The pledge was offered to attendees at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the event for techies worldwide. It’s also a place where our Listen To Your Buds public education campaign exhibits.

The signatories, young and old, moms, dads, and grandparents, didn’t need to be convinced that hearing matters. It is inspiring to have their pledges close by when we sit in that meeting room and plan our campaign anew.

 

Joseph Cerquone, CAE, is Director of Public Relations for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.