Last updated on Sep 19, 2018
Like most people who commute to work by train, I’m never without a pair of earbuds or headphones, drowning out the screeching subway cars with a podcast or Spotify playlist. And when I’m at work writing, you’ll usually see me sporting a giant pair of over-the-ear ‘phones to block out the background noise of our open office.
Lately, though, my hearing isn’t what it used to be. It’s like I’m always surrounded by low talkers; I find myself leaning in to hear people and asking them to repeat themselves. Maybe I’ve royally screwed myself over by blasting noise into my head for so long, so I asked a couple experts — Dr. Thomas Roland, Jr., an otolaryngologist at NYU’s Langone Medical Center, and Dr. Sreek Cherukuri, a Chicago-based otolaryngologist and founder of MDHearingAid — if all our high-tech headphones and earbuds are, indeed, making us go deaf.
Young people are losing their hearing faster than their parents did
Our baby-booming parents had plenty of opportunities to destroy their hearing at all those drug-fueled Grateful Dead shows, but they certainly weren’t running around all day in Apple earbuds. People are losing their hearing at a much younger age than before — according to a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, there’s been a 30% increase in hearing loss among 12- to 19-year-olds in the last three decades.
“The myth I dispel most often is that hearing loss is a normal part of aging and a condition primarily of the elderly. The fact is, the majority of people with hearing loss are under 65,” Dr. Cherukuri told us. According to the World Health Organization, over a billion kids in the world are at risk of noise-induced hearing loss.
Your volume is waaay too loud
The high-tech devices we’re plugging into don’t max out until around 115 decibels — which, to put into perspective, is just slightly quieter than a jackhammer. (Your car stereo, by the way, can reach 154 decibels.) It’s tempting to turn your volume all the way up when you’ve got a particularly good jam on, but according to Dr. Cherukuri, keeping your volume that loud can cause permanent hearing loss in as little as 15 minutes. “If you cannot carry on a conversation with someone 3ft away from you in a normal voice while listening to your music or a podcast, IT IS TOO LOUD,” Dr. Cherukuri says.
Losing your hearing doesn’t just suck, it can ruin your life
By the way, you’re not just threatening your aural prowess by cranking Daft Punk on the subway platform, but a whole lot more. “Leaving hearing loss untreated can have significant consequences, from poorer performance at work, a strain on relationships, a higher risk of heart disease, balance problems, and even a higher risk of dementia.”
And earbuds are the biggest offenders
It turns out that earbuds are capable of doing significantly more damage to the ear hair cells compared to over-the-ear options. “In-canal ear buds sit closer to the ear drum and can get seven to nine dB louder than over-the-ear headphones,” says Dr. Cherukuri. “I personally wear over-the-ear headphones. I have my children wear over-the-ear headphones and encourage my patients to do the same.”
You know that ringing in your ears? That’s really bad.
Tinnitus, or a ringing in the ears, is the brain’s response to trouble in the ear and hearing mechanism, according to Dr. Roland. And the popular health myth that the buzzing or humming is the dying swan song of that distinct frequency isn’t quite true. Rather, “the tinnitus frequency is [actually] one octave above the area of damage.”
Noise-canceling headphones are your best bet
Shelling out a lot of money for fancy headphone brands doesn’t mean they’re safer for your ears. But it is worth spending more for a pair that offers legitimate noise cancelation. Because of their design, you’re less likely to crank the volume to unsafe levels. Dr. Cherukuri explains: “Noise-canceling headphones work by producing a sound wave 180 degrees out of phase with the environmental noise. Thus, we don’t have to overcome the background noise and can listen to our music or podcasts at a safer volume.”
And you should stick to the 60/60 rule
Even if you think you’re listening at a safe volume, it’s good to get in the habit of taking a break. “I advise following the 60/60 rule for headphone use — listening at no more than 60% of the maximum volume for no more than 60 minutes at a time, and then taking a break,” says Dr. Cherukuri.
The good news is not all hearing damage is irreversible
Dr. Cherukuri acknowledges that there’s no cure for lost hearing, but there are treatments to help restore what you’re missing. “Hearing aids will generally reverse most or all of the consequences.” So maybe, if we’re all collectively ruining our hearing at the same pace, there may come a time when hearing aids are actually cool. Maybe.