Facing The Music: Why More Young People Have 'Old' Ears

15/11/2015 8:21 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Someone once said, the first sign of maturity is the discovery that the volume knob also turns to the left. Research over the past several years shows that courtesy our obsession with loud music, we are staring at a colossal surge in deafness and other hearing problems. When I started commuting by Mumbai's local trains some years ago, I noticed the tremendous ubiquity of earphones. They snake out of almost every second to third pair of young ears, and most people are too engrossed "grooving" to realise that they have raised their music volume to dangerously high levels. In such a scenario, if we go to them and try to inform them about such "earphone-abuse", we will surely be asked to mind our own business: after all, people have the right to enjoy their (loud) music in peace.

Music is one of humankind's greatest creations, and modern-day devices with their spiffy ear accessories do a phenomenal job of bringing it to us with unprecedented clarity. If, however, we don't wish to lose this awesome experience of euphony while we are still young, some reluctant hard work needs to occur from our side. Especially because hearing loss induced by loud noise, once it sets in, is permanent.

"[W]e tend to brush aside the dangers of 'earphone-abuse' because it is a kind of invisible (and initially 'inaudible') risk: we become deaf gradually and over many years..."

The tiny region inside of our ears, just like the rest of our body, is a site of incredible mechanics. The brain can perceive sound because of "hair cells" in the inner ear: these are several times thinner than the average hair, and they convert sound waves into electrical energy -- the form in which sound is presented to the brain -- through what is called transduction. The hair cells thus hold the key to hearing, but they are very delicate and sensitive. If you force them to transduce hefty sound waves each day for long, you're simply inducing fatigue in them. Initially the cells even recover from the fatigue, but with repeated stress they sort of wither and finally die. With the body having no mechanism to make new hair cells, irreversible damage ensues, whether you are in your 60s or in your 20s.

Sometimes metaphors best drive home a point. Thus, telling a 25-year-old obsessed with loud music that they'll have "noise-induced hearing loss" is better expressed as, "You'll get the ears of a 75-year old." As we age, most of us suffer from natural, gradual hearing loss, mainly due to cumulative slow-paced damage to the same hair cells over decades. What the naive over-use of earphones is doing is simply hastening this damage, and now increasingly more and more teenagers and young persons are developing serious hearing problems -- like Coldplay's Chris Martin. It's the auditory equivalent of beginning to lose one's sexual drive at, say, age 22.

The mechanics of the present-day human body were largely perfected thousands of years ago when our surroundings were considerably quiet and when loud sounds never constantly crashed into our ears. One can imagine how overwhelming modern-day changes must be for the ear. Still, we tend to brush aside the dangers of "earphone-abuse" because it is a kind of invisible (and initially "inaudible") risk: we become deaf gradually and over many years, with nothing happening all of a sudden. Besides, as with other health risks like smoking, we haven't even been exposed to aggressive scare tactics and advertisements. Although if one were to use those, a sample ad would go something like: Look at this young girl, tapping her feet and drumming her fingers to a rocking track playing in her ears. Little does she know that deep inside her dainty ears is a melancholy state of mourning. Carcasses of wounded hair cells are scattered all around, and those that survive have their days numbered. The punch line: In no time she'll be seen with hearing aids, not headphones!

"Experts recommend a 60/60 rule: listening for at the most 60 minutes per day at 60% volume is safe."

Of course there are ways out. Experts recommend a 60/60 rule: listening for at the most 60 minutes per day at 60% volume is safe. When you crank up the volume more, even a few minutes of sound becomes potentially injurious. While listening to music, if you cannot at all hear conversations around you, or if people around are able to hear what your earphones are pumping in you, you're doing it wrong. Long journeys are especially problematic because we tend to listen to music for extended periods, and we also tend to turn up the volume to hazardous levels to drown out background noise -- perhaps it's time we resumed our grandparents' habits of simply chatting and reading books while travelling. Earplugs are highly recommended when going to concerts, discos and other similar venues. The World Health Organization (WHO) in fact has produced a "Make Listening Safe" brochure listing such experts-recommended guidelines.

With smartphones becoming easily accessible, listening to music "too much, too loudly" has become an extremely common but underestimated health risk. Health centres, already crammed with patients suffering from ailments which could have been prevented through simple measures, will need to amplify services greatly, as the WHO estimates 1.1 billion young people to be at risk. Considering the fact that we are generally refractory to "dull and tedious" health-related cautions, and reluctant to surrender old habits, ENT specialists should brace themselves for a deafening increase in work volumes.

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