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Image: Matthew Brady
Steven Senne  /  AP
Matthew Brady, 17, of Foxborough, Mass., poses for a portrait in his home Friday while wearing ear phones and displaying an iPod. Brady, who has some mild hearing loss, used to listen to the device while running on a treadmill with the volume turned up.
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updated 8/17/2010 4:03:48 PM ET 2010-08-17T20:03:48

A stunning number of teens have lost a little bit of their hearing — nearly one in five — and the problem has increased substantially in recent years, a new national study has found.

Some experts are urging teenagers to turn down the volume on their digital music players, suggesting loud music through earbuds may be to blame — although hard evidence is lacking. They warn that slight hearing loss can cause problems in school and set the stage for hearing aids in later life.

"Our hope is we can encourage people to be careful," said the study's senior author Dr. Gary Curhan of Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

The researchers analyzed data on 12- to 19-year-olds from a nationwide health survey. They compared hearing loss in nearly 3,000 kids tested from 1988-94 to nearly 1,800 kids tested over 2005-06.

The prevalence of hearing loss increased from about 15 percent to 19.5 percent.

Q&A: How loud is too loud?

Most of the hearing loss was "slight," defined as inability to hear at 16 to 24 decibels — or sounds such as a whisper or rustling leaves. A teenager with slight hearing loss might not be able to hear water dripping or his mother whispering "good night."

Extrapolating to the nation's teens, that would mean about 6.5 million with at least slight hearing loss.

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Those with slight hearing loss "will hear all of the vowel sounds clearly, but might miss some of the consonant sounds" such as t, k and s, Curhan said.

"Although speech will be detectable, it might not be fully intelligible," he said.

While the researchers didn't single out iPods or any other device for blame, they found a significant increase in high-frequency hearing loss, which they said may indicate that noise caused the problems. And they cited a 2010 Australian study that linked use of personal listening devices with a 70 percent increased risk of hearing loss in children.

"I think the evidence is out there that prolonged exposure to loud noise is likely to be harmful to hearing, but that doesn't mean kids can't listen to MP3 players," Curhan said.

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The study is based on data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey conducted by a branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The findings appear in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Association.

Loud music isn't new, of course. Each new generation of teenagers has found a new technology to blast music — from the bulky headphones of the 1960s to the handheld Sony Walkmans of the 1980s.

Today's young people are listening longer, more than twice as long as previous generations, said Brian Fligor, an audiologist at Children's Hospital Boston. The older technologies had limited battery life and limited music storage, he said.

Apple iPod users can set their own volume limits. Parents can use the feature to set a maximum volume on their child's iPod and lock it with a code.

One of Fligor's patients, 17-year-old Matthew Brady of Foxborough, Mass., recently was diagnosed with mild hearing loss. He has trouble hearing his friends in the school cafeteria. He ends up faking comprehension.

"I laugh when they laugh," he said.

Fligor believes Brady's muffled hearing was caused by listening to an iPod turned up too loud and for too long. After his mother had a heart attack, Brady's pediatrician had advised him to exercise for his own health. So he cranked up the volume on his favorites — John Mellencamp, Daughtry, Bon Jovi and U2 — while walking on a treadmill at least four days a week for 30-minute stretches.

One day last summer, he got off the treadmill and found he couldn't hear anything with his left ear. His hearing gradually returned, but was never the same.

Some young people turn their digital players up to levels that would exceed federal workplace exposure limits, said Fligor. In Fligor's own study of about 200 New York college students, more than half listened to music at 85 decibels or louder. That's about as loud as a hair dryer or a vacuum cleaner.

Habitual listening at those levels can turn microscopic hair cells in the inner ear into scar tissue, Fligor said. Some people may be more predisposed to damage than others; Fligor believes Brady is one of them.

These days, Brady still listens to his digital player, but at lower volumes.

"Do not blare your iPod," he said. "It's only going to hurt your hearing. I learned this the hard way."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Turn that down! More teens suffer from hearing loss

  1. Transcript of: Turn that down! More teens suffer from hearing loss

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: We mentioned this before the break. In health news tonight, there's new research tonight showing specifically the downside we all feared from our portable electronic age. A significant number of teenagers have lost some of their hearing, and that problem has gotten much worse in recent years. Our report from our chief science correspondent Robert Bazell .

    Unidentified Man #1: That's OK. We'll be done soon.

    ROBERT BAZELL reporting: Vanessa Ackerman is a recent college graduate who helps her friend Stephanie Hijazi with her clothing design business.

    Ms. VANESSA ACKERMAN: This is all the new stuff from the Galecstasy line.

    BAZELL: They both go out to hear loud music a lot. One night recently Vanessa lost her hearing for three days.

    Ms. ACKERMAN: I never thought I would wake up one day and literally feel like, you know, a 90-year-old woman that can't hear anything.

    BAZELL: The research out today looked at the most recent government survey and found that one in five adolescents had some hearing loss , 30 percent more than a similar survey 15 years before.

    Dr. JOSEF SHARGORODSKY (Brigham and Women's Hospital): This is a serious public health issue. Hearing loss is a real problem, even though teenagers seem to underestimate it.

    BAZELL: The survey does not say why hearing loss increased.

    Dr. MONICA NGUYEN: There's a very short window where you can recover hair cells.

    BAZELL: But most experts like Dr. Monica Nguyen of Lenox Hill Hospital have strong suspicions. What about devices in the ears, cell phones and all the things that kids are exposed to?

    Dr. NGUYEN: Of course. Kids have many more options for devices these days, and parents aren't able to monitor them because they're close to the ears and you can't detect how loud music is.

    BAZELL: At full volume, an iPod or other MP3 player gives off 105 decibels. That's equivalent to putting your ear next to a power lawn mower or attending a rock concert. But with most units, parents can control the maximum volume.

    Dr. BRIAN FLIGOR (Children's Hospital Boston): Going to have you come inside, get the earphones in the ears.

    BAZELL: Dr. Brian Fligor treats many musicians with hearing problems and has strong advice for using devices with earbuds or phones.

    Dr. FLIGOR: Turned all the way up, a person really shouldn't listen to it longer than about a song, maybe two songs.

    Unidentified Woman: Do you want to hear the song?

    BAZELL: But experts say it is doubtful teenagers hear such warning.

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