By Neale McDevitt
Loud music causing deafness is one of parenting’s time-honoured nags, right up there with the perils running with scissors and poking out someone’s eye with a pointy stick. As adults looking back with both eyes and all our appendages, most of us would agree that the dangers of scissors and sticks may have been exaggerated somewhat. But the loud music? It looks like our parents were onto something there.
“Traditionally, most of the people with hearing problems are elderly, but increasingly we’re seeing younger and younger patients,” says Liliane Brunetti, an Audiologist at the MAB-Mackay Rehabilitation Centre and a part-time professor at McGill’s School of Communication and Science Disorders. “Now we’re seeing people in their 20s with auditory problems that are the kind seen in people who had been working in loud factories or machine shops for 30 years.”
The No.1 culprit for this drastic shift in demographics among the hearing impaired? Headphones and ear buds.
The devices themselves aren’t dangerous. The problem is in user error; namely too much volume.
“Headphones in general, whether they are buds or standard headphones, are worse than listening to music in an open space. It closes the ear canal so all the sound pressure level is trapped in a very tight space as opposed to being dissipated throughout the whole room,” says Brunetti. “The hair cells in the cochlea become damaged. Because we have millions of hair cells we don’t notice any problems initially. But over time we reach a point where we see a difference. Once the hair cells are damaged there is no turning back.”
Ironically, we hear very little about hearing problems even though it is one of the fastest growing chronic conditions facing Canadians today.
According to Statistics Canada, more than 1 million Canadians reported having some sort of hearing-related disability, more than 50 per cent greater than the number of people reporting problems with their eyesight. Other studies indicate that the true number may reach three million or more Canadian adults, as those suffering from hearing problems often under-report their condition.
Part of the problem is that many people don’t know they have a hearing problem. “Because it happens so gradually, some people are aware of any loss of hearing,” says Brunetti. “They might start to turn up the volume for their television or their music, or they begin to talk louder than normal. Often it is the people around them who mention something first.”
But on Friday, March 20, and Tuesday, March 24, Brunetti will be helping oversee free hearing screenings for the public. The screenings will be conducted by Speech and Language Pathology students of the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders in the lobby of 2001 McGill College.
Using headphones, people will listen to sounds of different frequencies because it is possible to have a hearing loss at one pitch (usually high frequency) and not the others. People who fall outside the normal range will be referred for a complete hearing evaluation.
Brunetti says this type of screening should be done at several critical moments of a person’s life. Children should undergo hearing screening before entering kindergarten. “Quite often, kids who are having trouble in Grades 1, 2 or 3 are found to have some sort of hearing problem,” she says. “It’s unfortunate to see kids struggling in school because of something that could’ve been resolved early.”
People should also be screened again in their early 20s to establish a baseline against which future screenings can be measured. The free screenings at McGill would help establish this baseline.
In the meantime, there are a number of different things people can do to protect their hearing. If you must use headphones, Brunetti suggests using noise cancellation headphones to block outside noise, thereby reducing the need to crank up the volume.
People exposed to noisy environments should wear some sort of ear protection. This includes riding your snowmobile or using a chainsaw. “Mowing your lawn is killing the hair cells in your cochlea,” says Brunetti. “Not a great number each time, but after 10 years of mowing your lawn you’re going to start noticing a hearing loss that you would not have had you been wearing protective equipment at the time.”
And, of course, avoid excessively loud music. Or, if you can’t avoid it, protect yourself. “High-fidelity musician’s earplugs are very popular now and I’m seeing more and more young people come in and asking for them specifically,” says Brunetti. “Whether people are in bars a lot or in a band, they should get musician’s earplugs because, without them, if you’re playing in a band for 10 years, your hearing will be shot.
Free hearing screenings will be available to the public (including children over three years old) on Friday, March 20, and Tuesday, March 24, from 10:30 a.m. – 6 p.m. in the lobby of 2001 McGill College Avenue. An Audiologist will be on site to answer any questions.