Health: The sound of deafness

What a disaster: your parents may have been right all along. Music at rock concerts and clubs, and from personal stereos could be causing irreversible damage to our hearing.
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When Pete Bell, aged 51, went for a routine hearing test last month, he was shocked to discover that he had the hearing of a 78-year- old. "Like all people of my generation I used to listen to quite a lot of rock music," says Pete. "In the Seventies The Who came to our university and I remember sitting really close to the speakers so I could get the full effect of the sound. The music was really loud... For two days afterwards I had this numb feeling in my ears as if they had been hit, but it never occurred to me that my hearing might have been permanently damaged."

Jan Croker, the audiological scientist who tested Pete's hearing, was not at all surprised at the result.

"I see more and more baby boomers like Pete who listened to loud rock music in the Sixties and Seventies and who are now suffering from a substantial degree of hearing loss," she says.

Industrial workers have long been aware of the damage that loud noise can do to their hearing, and anyone exposed to more than 90 decibels throughout the day is obliged by law to wear ear protection. But according to recent research from Australia, young people who use personal stereos are regularly experiencing noise levels that exceed safety limits - just in the pursuit of pleasure.

The Australian study of 1,700 young people found hearing loss in people in their twenties and thirties. "Anything above 85 decibels increases your risk of hearing loss," says Jan Croker. "And if you're listening to a personal stereo in a noisy place, you may be turning up the volume without realising it.

"You begin to increase your risk of hearing loss when noise reaches levels of more than 85 decibels. To give you an idea of what that constitutes, the sound of a vacuum cleaner measures 80 decibels; a crying child produces 90 decibels or so, and a personal stereo hits about 100 decibels."

The Royal National Institute for Deaf People confirms that loud, continuous noise irreversibly damages the sensitive hair cells in the inner ear.

"We are all subjected to far more noise these days as part of everyday life, but it's digital technology that has made the real difference to the levels of noise that we can control," says Marie Mangan, of the RNID. "In the old days, when music was too loud it automatically distorted, acting as an automatic protection mechanism. Nowadays, digital technology means that we can turn the sound right up with hardly any distortion at all."

Jan Croker agrees. "Young people who go clubbing all night are particularly at risk of hearing loss," she points out. Music in night-clubs and raves can reach 120 decibels, and can go on for 15 hours. Exposure to these levels for two or three hours a week would give more than the "noise dose" considered unacceptable in industry. "Most people working in that level of noise would be obliged by their employers to wear ear protection."

Although Pete has hardly noticed that he has trouble with his hearing, he does admit that he can miss the ends of words and has some difficulty picking up high-pitched sounds. "I suppose, if I am honest about it, I do have trouble hearing conversations, particularly if I am in a bar, for example, where there is a lot of background noise," he says.

"Pete is a classic case of someone who is constantly compensating for his hearing loss," says Jan Croker. "Ears are delicate and complex structures, which are easy to damage. Hearing loss can creep up on people. The ringing noises in his ears after that rock concert all those years ago went away, but we now know that this type of loud noise causes subtle levels of damage to the infrastructure of the inner ear, and the effects are cumulative."

We may all be storing up trouble for the future, according to the RNID. They are concerned about the growing trend for film-makers and studios to produce films with unnecessary and exceedingly high sound levels.

"Recent examples are Armageddon, which reached 115 decibels, Lethal Weapon, which reached 108 decibels, and Godzilla, at 109 decibels. These are all way above the comfortable limit at which we should be listening to sound," says Marie Mangan.

So is there anything we can do to protect our hearing? "Earplugs are the latest fashion accessory on the dance floor," says Jan Croker. "Many DJs are now wearing them. I recently tested the hearing of a DJ who had significant hearing loss. He now never goes into a club without earplugs. They knocks off just enough noise to make the difference between damaging your hearing, or not."

And what about people such as Pete, in whom the damage may already be done?

"Ironically, the very technology that has made loud noise so prevalent can help the problems it creates," says Jan Croker. "Nowadays you can get minute digital hearing aids that are invisible because they sit right inside the ear." On a recent television programme, Peter Stringfellow demonstrated a hearing aid of this type.

However, hearing aids still have a certain stigma attached to them - and they can be pricey. The really tiny ones can cost pounds 500 to pounds 2,000. But now the RNID is calling for a national screening campaign for everyone aged 50 and over, and for the new digital hearing aids to be made available on the NHS.

Jan Croker says: "If people are screened sooner, and fitted with hearing aids earlier, they fare better as they get older, when age-related hearing loss kicks in."

She predicts a rise in the numbers of young people with hearing loss who will be coming to her clinic in the future. "If Pete has the hearing of a 78-year-old as a result of rock music in the Sixties, it's hard to imagine what on earth is happening to the ears of the youth today."

Meanwhile, Pete is going back in a year's time to have his hearing tested again. "Now I am aware of the problem, I want to be able to do something if my hearing gets any worse. I'm not too keen on having a hearing aid, but if it were necessary I guess I would go along with it," he says.

For free information about noise exposure and hearing loss, call the RNID helpline on 0870 6050123