Pump up the volume, increase your risk of hearing loss

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Gym sneakers? Check.

Work out gloves? Check.

iPod? Check.

Hearing aid? What?

For many of us, an iPod or other portable listening device is an indispensable part of our workout gear. But are these devices putting our hearing at risk?

A recent study conducted by the University of Alberta found that people who exercise in a gym setting are likely to turn up the volume to potentially unsafe levels for the ear.

Jeff Hellinga listens to music while he works out at a local Chicago gym. Amber Lindke/MEDILL.Jeff Hellinga listens to music while he works out at a local Chicago gym. Amber Lindke/MEDILL.“I don’t think most people are aware of the damage that listening at loud levels can have on their hearing,” said Douglas Steinberg, a Chicago-area audiologist. “They may not be able to communicate and it will decrease their quality of life.”

The study that investigated the effects of external noise and exercise on the use of PLDs was conducted by William Hodgetts, Ryan Szarko and Jana Rieger. It was published in the International Journal of Audiology.

Hodgetts, assistant professor in the Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology, said two factors caused people exercising at a gym to turn up the volume on their PLD. They do it because of background noise and the mere act of exercising.

“The gym tends to be a consistently noisy environment…which causes people to crank up the tunes,” Hodgetts said.

He said background noise caused the subjects in his study to increase the volume on their PLDs 90 percent of the time. The act of exercising may have been a contributing factor for the remaining 10 percent, he said, because louder music may act as a motivator.

Using a cranked up iPod, said Chicago audiologist Steven Wolinsky, can cause the same kind of noise-induced hearing loss as repeated exposure to industrial or recreational noise. Microscopic hair cells in the ear’s cochlea become damaged, he said, and with repeated exposure to extreme noise levels, the damage becomes permanent.

Steinberg recommends trading off time and decibel levels. For example, people listening at 85 decibels can listen for eight hours at the most before causing damage to their ear. If they increase the volume to 90 decibels, they can only listen safely for four hours.

Brian Fligor, Director of Diagnostic Audiology at Boston Children’s Hospital, also conducted research on the risks of listening to PLDs. Someone listening to a PLD at 95 percent of maximum volume five days a week over the course of 10 years will age their ears approximately 30 years, he said. 

PLDs can be safely listened to at 80 percent of maximum volume for up to 90 minutes per day, he said.

People who listen to PLDs in a noisy environment such as a gym, airplane or subway, said Fligor, should use noise-isolating or sound-canceling earphones to eliminate background noise.

The study showed that between 33 and 42 percent of participants chose potentially dangerous listening levels in the gym setting. In a quiet environment, said Fligor, only 5 to 10 percent of people choose harmful.

Wolinsky has seen “a number of young adolescents who are coming in with noise-induced hearing loss,” which he believes are caused by PLD use. “Their mothers are afraid that damage is being done.”

Jeff Hellinga, a Chicago businessman, said he listens to his PLD once a day for 30 minutes and is not concerned about his hearing. He is, however, worried about his 17-year-old son.

“He has got them in his ears all the time,” Hellinga said, “so I warn him.”

“Discouraging people from listening to loud music isn’t productive,” Fligor said, “but the time they listen needs to be monitored."

Fligor advises people concerned that their PLDs are too loud, he said, to contact an audiologist and get their hearing tested.

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