According to a new report by BMJ Global Health, over a billion youngsters are at risk of hearing loss due to excessive usage of headphones and earbuds and unsafe listening habits. The researchers believe that governments, globally, need to set up policies focussing on safe listening habits to promote aural health.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that approximately 430 million people suffer from hearing loss. However, young people are more vulnerable due to heavy use of personal listening devices (PLDs) such as headphones, earbuds and smartphones. They prefer listening to loud music above than set volume standards.
How common is unsafe listening?
Previous studies have suggested that PLD users often like high volumes up to 105 dB (sound unit), while the average sound levels at entertainment events range from 104 to 112 dB. However, the safe sound limit is 80 dB for adults and 75 dB for children, even for short periods.
The researchers wanted to know how common is unsafe listening practices among teens and adults to estimate the numbers who are at risk of hearing loss. With an evidence-based study, they aim to educate people and demand policy-making to safeguard aural health.
For this, they researched databases for relevant published studies involving 12-34-year-old people and reporting on device output levels and exposure time. The study involved a group of 33 studies resembling data from 35 records and 19,046 participants. Out of these, 17 records focused on PLD use and 18 on loud entertainment venues.
The researchers also estimated the global number of people who could be at risk of hearing loss by considering the estimated population of 12-34 year-olds in 2022 (2.8 billion) and the best estimates of exposure to unsafe listening practices from PLDs or loud entertainment venues derived from the systematic review.
How are unsafe listening practices dangerous?
The data showed that unsafe listening practices, including PLD use and attending loud entertainment venues, were common worldwide, corresponding to 24 percent and 48 percent of teens and adult attendees, respectively.
Researchers estimate that the number of teens and adults who could be at risk of hearing loss ranges from 0.67 to 1.35 billion. However, there were some limitations to the findings, including the study design and the absence of standard methodologies.
Also, the data did not include factors such as demographic details and recent changes in aural health policies. But the findings conclude that governments and civil societies should prioritise hearing loss prevention by promoting safe listening habits.
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Can Apple’s AirPods Help?
Interestingly, headphones and earbuds that have been associated with causing hearing loss are also a solution to this problem. A study published in the journal iScience suggests that some commercial earbuds can also be used as hearing aids. These could help people with hearing loss and access newly-aged and affordable sound amplification devices.
We know hearing loss has harmful health impacts. However, professional aids are expensive and require multiple visits to audiologists or hearing specialists for tunning. Such barriers do not allow people to use professional hearing aids. In fact, 75 percent of American citizens suffering from hearing loss don’t access it.
“There’s also a social stigma associated with hearing aids,” said Yen-fu Cheng, the study’s corresponding author. “Many patients are reluctant to wear them because they don’t want to appear old. So, we started exploring if there are more accessible alternatives.”
Apple launched wireless earphones, AirPods and iPhone for sound amplification in 2016. The feature resembled similar to a personal sound amplification product, which is designed for people with normal hearing and used for occasions like birdwatching. The researchers wanted to know whether these commercially available Airpods can be used as hearing aid or not. They compared Airpods 2 and Airpods Pro- the model with a noise cancelling feature with a type of premium hearing aids and a basic pair of hearing aids.
The premium hearing aids cost $10,000, and the basic ones cost $1000. Both AirPod models are cheaper than hearing aids. AirPod 2 costs $129, and AirPod Pro costs $249. Interestingly, AirPods Pro met four out of five hearing standards for hearing aids.
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The team selected 21 participants having mild to moderate hearing loss with four devices. The researchers read short sentences, such as “the electricity bills went up recently,” to participants. They were asked to repeat the words while wearing the aids. They discovered that AirPods Pro performed well as same as the basic ones in a quiet environment but was slightly inferior to premium hearing aids.
Though AirPods 2 was the least performer among the four, it helped participants hear more clearly compared with wearing no hearing aids. Contrarily, AirPods Pro showed comparable performance to premium hearing aids when sound came from the lateral sides of a participant. However, both AirPods models failed to help participants hear clearly when the noises came from the front.
“Two reasons may account for the difference between the two scenarios,” said Ying-Hui Lai, the study’s co-author. “It may relate to the trajectories soundwaves travel with, as well as the advanced signal processing algorithm by premium hearing aids. This finding will hopefully inspire engineers to design hearing aids and personal sound amplification products that are more sensitive in certain directions.” He adds that AirPods Pro appears to perform better than AirPods 2, likely because of its noise-cancelling feature.
“Globally, the wireless earphone market is growing rapidly. Some companies are interested in exploring the possibility of designing earbuds with sound amplification features. Our study proves that the idea is plausible,” added Lai.
According to Cheng, convincing patients to wear hearing aids is difficult. “These wireless earbuds are of course not perfect, but they would be a good starting point for many patients who don’t have access to professional hearing aids. They will see an increase in quality of life even with these earbuds,” he added.