The Growing Prevalence of Hearing Loss in Young Adults

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( — March 10, 2021) — 

Young adults often enjoy attending concerts and going to bars and clubs with their friends to watch live music. They also spend more time than older adults listening to music at high volume through earbuds and headphones.

While there is nothing wrong with socializing and relaxing to music they find enjoyable, these habits are also causing people to develop mild to moderate hearing loss at younger ages. Some hearing professionals refer to this as the hidden hearing loss epidemic because noise-induced hearing loss can be more challenging to detect.

How Widespread is the Problem?

In 2014, a study conducted by the New York City Department of Health indicated that nearly 25 percent of participants between the ages of 18 and 44 reported some degree of noise-induced hearing loss. What these study participants had in common is that all reported listen to music at loud volume through headphones or earbuds at least five days per week. Irreversible damage to the inner ear can occur from continuous loud noise exposure, resulting in hearing damage, tinnitus, or both.

Other Causes of Noise-Induced Hearing Loss

Frequent attendance at rock concerts and listening to music at a loud volume directly are leading causes of noise-induced hearing loss in young adults. However, many other causes contribute to the problem as well. These include:

  • Regularly driving in heavy traffic
  • Attending loud and crowded sporting events
  • Frequent exposure to construction noises
  • Exposure to a one-time noise at extremely high decibels such as a gunshot or bomb
  • Regularly dining out at noisy restaurants

Part of the problem with early detection of noise-induce hearing loss is that younger people assume the damage to their hearing is only temporary. This is sometimes the case, such as when a person has trouble hearing immediately after a rock concert but their hearing returns to normal the next day. They may not recognize that their hearing has become a problem until others point it out to them. For example, the young adult with noise-induced hearing loss may ask others to repeat themselves often or strain to hear conversation in a noisy restaurant.

Steps Young Adults Can Take to Protect Their Hearing

Another issue preventing the timely diagnosis of early hearing loss in younger people is that they believe the mistaken notion that hearing loss only happens to older people. They need to break through that denial and understand that anyone can develop noise-induced hearing loss in the right set of circumstances. Below are several steps all people can take to protect their hearing regardless of age.

  • Stay away from loud environments whenever possible. The easiest way to know that an environment is too loud is when people must shout to hear each other in conversation.
  • Those who smoke should make a concerted effort to quit. Besides the damage that tar and nicotine does to the lungs, inhaling tobacco also has the effect of damaging nerve endings and hair cells in the ear. Repeated injury to these parts of the ears will eventually cause hearing loss. Avoiding secondhand smoke as much as possible is also a good idea.
  • Read medication labels carefully whether prescribed by a doctor or purchased as a non-prescription medication. Certain medications do list potential hearing loss as a side effect.
  • Use earplugs, noise-cancelling headphones, or programmable earbuds set to the user’s hearing profile when unable to avoid a noisy environment.
  • Check new appliances for noise ratings before purchasing them. The lower the number, the less likely the appliance is to cause damage to hearing.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask the manager of public places like restaurants or bars to turn the music down if set at an uncomfortable volume.
  • Clean the ears regularly with an irrigation kit from a doctor or a drugstore. People should avoid placing Q-tips in their ears to remove earwax since it can push earwax further into the ear canal.

Following these tips can also help noise-induced hearing loss from getting worse when it has already occurred.

Resources for Young Adults with Hearing Loss

Facing the world as a young person with a hearing loss is never easy. The most important thing younger adults can do is learn how to advocate for themselves as soon as possible. When attending college, for example, students with hearing problems have the right to ask for special accommodations such as taking tests away from the rest of the class. Every college or university should have a disability services office where students with hearing loss can find additional resources to help them succeed in school.

When interviewing for a job, candidates with hearing loss may want to inform the interviewer right away to avoid that person assuming the candidate just isn’t listening. However, there is no legal requirement to do this, and each person needs to decide their own comfort level. Arranging for an online interview with close captioning capabilities is another option.

With people already on the job, the Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to make reasonable accommodations to allow hard-of-hearing individuals to perform their duties at the same level as their peers. Whatever the situation, early and assertive self-advocacy is the best solution.