Enjoy the Fireworks, but Protect Your Ears!

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Nothing says Fourth of July like outdoor cookouts and fireworks overhead. Illuminating the sky with a grand display has been an annual tradition for as long as we can remember, since John Adams wished it to be part of the festivities even before signing the Declaration of Independence.

While we encourage everyone to take part in the celebration, it’s important to remember to take precautions to protect your hearing. In a study published last year, the Centers for Disease Control said that nearly one in every four Americans suffer from temporary or permanent noise-induced hearing loss.

“Hearing loss is the third most common chronic physical condition in the United States and is twice as prevalent as diabetes or cancer,” the authors report. It is a significant, often unrecognized health problem among adults in the US that can be associated with decreased social, psychological, and cognitive functioning if left untreated.

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AAAS 2016: Hearing for Life

Topics at this year’s annual meeting of American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) ranged from genome editing to the gravitational waves of black holes. Many of the neuroscience-related talks and panels focused on the senses and perception: I heard a lot about hearing this year. Here are some highlights:

Kids: “We tend to think of kids as being the source of noise, not the victims of noise,” said Nan Bernstein Ratner of University of Maryland, College Park, who organized a symposium on effects of noise on children. But not only do small children not have access to the volume control when the TV is too loud, they have not yet mastered the ability to sort out important (speech) sounds from other noise.

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Teens can, too, hear you

New research from the University of Minnesota suggests we take last month’s highly publicized hearing-loss study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital with a grain of salt. The earlier study indicated that 20 percent of teenagers suffer from hearing loss due to too many overloud sounds. The University of Minnesota study suggests that the methods researchers use to study hearing loss may have produced false positive results in up to 10 percent of teens tested. This would mean that less than seven percent of teens have noise-induced hearing loss. While not an insignificant number, these results lower the likelihood of a possible “hearing-loss epidemic,” as Live Science puts it.

Co-author of the Minnesota study, Bert Schlauch, explains that measurement errors are common in hearing tests, a problem that can lead to exaggerated data. Something as simple as how tightly headphones are placed on or in the ears can lead to misleading results. In his study, he and his colleagues tested and re-tested members of the University of Minnesota’s marching band over the course of a year. They found that their initial results of 15 percent suffering from hearing loss depleted to less than half that measurement after the players were re-tested and their scores averaged. The Minnesota researchers also looked at one of the two data sets the Brigham and Women’s Hospital researchers analyzed and found that as much as 10 percent of the 14.9 percent prevalence figure they cited could be false positive responses instead of true hearing loss.

What causes hearing loss and who may be most susceptible? Recent studies have sounded warnings about the use of earbuds, a popular form of headphones for iPods and other MP3 players, commonly used by young and old. I frequently marvel at the loud music emitting from people’s headphones on the subway—and this above the already cacophonous noise of the subway itself.

The silver lining is that this form of hearing loss can be prevented. So, while loud music may be a rite of passage for many teenagers, they may want to listen to their parents the next time they’re asked to turn the music down.

–Ann L. Whitman

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