When you think about hearing loss, you probably picture someone in the later years of life. But research suggests that even people under 40 should be wary: The World Health Organization estimates that 1.1 billion millennials worldwide are at risk for hearing loss most likely related to “extensive use of personal listening devices.” Studies show that nearly 50 percent of young adults ages 12 to 35 are cranking the volume in their earbuds to dangerously high decibels.
Most people aren’t too worried about their ears, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 40 million Americans ages 20 to 69 have hearing damage from everyday loud noise. Researchers have estimated that 17 percent of teenagers in the United States show some signs of noise-induced hearing loss in one or both ears. Similarly, Statistics Canada reports that 53 percent of Canadians aged 3 to 79 have used earbuds or headphones to listen to music, movies or other types of audio in the last 12 months. One-third of those individuals regularly listened at a volume that was at or above three quarters of the maximum volume.
Worse yet, hearing loss may be linked to dementia. “Research currently shows a relationship between hearing loss and dementia—that is, people diagnosed with dementia have a higher prevalence of hearing loss, and the more severe the hearing loss, the greater the degree of dementia,” says Laurel Christensen, PhD, chief audiology officer at GN Hearing. “While the underlying cause is not completely known, there is enough of a relationship between hearing loss and dementia to warrant the monitoring of one’s hearing sensitivity,” she says. Christensen also emphasizes the need to prevent loss in the first place—and to seek out aids if your hearing is already damaged.
Some experts theorize that the dementia risk may be due to the social isolation that often accompanies hearing loss: Avoiding interactions because you can’t hear what people are saying can mean less intellectual stimulation for your brain—and that could open the door to dementia. Don’t miss this habit that could put your brain at risk of dementia.
How do you know if you should get your ears checked?
Frequently asking friends to repeat themselves or continually turning up the TV volume are signs. “Exposure to loud sounds, such as gunshots or rock concerts, can cause permanent hearing loss,” Christensen explains. “Unfortunately, since the development of the Walkman, and now MP3 and other digital audio players, listeners can experience their own personal rock concerts played directly into their ears for hours on end, day after day. They never allow their ears the opportunity to fully rest or recuperate, and that can turn what may have been a temporary loss of hearing into a permanent one,” she warns.
If a hearing screening test reveals any loss, it’s important to take it seriously.
“It is important to keep the auditory nerve firing and the hearing neurons working by stimulating them with sound,” Christensen says. “Additionally, good hearing helps make social interactions more enjoyable, which promotes a better quality of life.”
The best way to protect your hearing is by maintaining a healthy lifestyle and wearing hearing protection when necessary. Christensen recommends wearing hearing protection at concerts, firing ranges, and motor speedways. If you’re listening to music through earbuds or headphones, ask family or friends if they can hear it: If they can do so from more than a foot away, the volume’s too high. Next, learn how your sense of smell can indicate your risk for dementia.