You're in a club, immersed in a band, and on stage the lead singer spouts something that makes everyone laugh — everyone but you, that is, because you couldn't hear what he said. At the office holiday party, you find yourself leaning in and repeating, "Sorry?" thanks to background chatter and music that make your co-workers sound like Charlie Brown's parents in Peanuts. You assume a kind of auditory denial and think, "OK, maybe I've lost a little hearing. It's just part of getting older."
That may be true — but hearing loss is happening to more of us, and sooner: A report in March from JAMA Otolaryngology predicted that the number of U.S. adults aged 20 or older with hearing loss will rise from 15 to 23 percent in the next 40 years. That's likely due to a constant assault of noise. We've become so accustomed to blaring sound — in traffic, at the gym, through our earbuds, while hitting blend on our green smoothies — that even our definition of what "loud" is has changed.
What we know: Twice as many people now have hearing loss as in the Eighties. Not coincidentally, that was the decade the Walkman entered our lives — and we're starting to see the impact on middle-aged Gen Xers: One in 14 grapples with hearing loss. The scarier stat? About 30 percent more teenagers have hearing loss now than when Reagan was president. A recent Brazilian study found that 28 percent of teenagers there had tinnitus (ringing in the ears) due to using earbuds and going to loud concerts and parties.
Age, of course, plays a role in losing hearing, and the fact that we're living longer adds to that. But age-related hearing loss is often caused by increasing exposure to moderately loud noise, explains Stanford professor and auditory expert Stefan Heller, "so aging and noise-caused hearing loss could be intertangled."
And that's where our ever-louder world is also to blame. "In the past, we were exposed to music and power tools, but we weren't exposed to so many combinations of things," says Heller. Medical professionals of all stripes, including those at the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, agree that our ears shouldn't be subjected to any sound above the destructive threshold of 85 decibels — the volume of a blender. Anything higher can cause hearing loss. (It's important to note that decibel level is not a linear measure. Sound at 80dB is more than twice as loud as at 70dB, and 90dB is 10 times as loud.) Yet we're regularly bombarded with noise far louder than 85dB: motorcycles (95), subway rumble (100), rock shows (115), group cycling classes (117), and screeching kids' toys (up to 150). Movies, particularly, are more and more deafening (action movies have clocked in at 105), and they produce some of the longest exposure.
The fact that we seldom think about how we expose ourselves to these loud sounds is the heart of the problem. "Noise-induced hearing loss is more an issue because people underestimate it," says New York City audiologist Lisa McDevitt, who has seen a rise in this condition in her patients during the last decade. "Noise-induced loss takes place gradually — people aren't aware of it."