Health: For your hearing's sake - turn it down

Your mother was right, loud music can make you go deaf. Emma Horton has disturbing news for a generation of ravers
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Indy Lifestyle Online
THREE years ago, Steve Jones, 32, left a Manchester club with deadened hearing. At university he went to discos every week, but when he started clubbing again at 29 he found the noise level had increased significantly. "There's much more bass in dance music now. I think I had accumulated hearing damage until one night that club just pushed me over some kind of threshold."

Although his deafness has improved, he finds it difficult to follow conversations in a noisy room, or to identify the location of a ringing phone. But it is the legacy of permanent tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, that bothers him most.

"It's quite a nasty noise, like a spade scraping along the ground, and it's almost constant. When I got it, it was the biggest thing in my life and I worried about it most of the day. I felt real anger for a while and was frightened it would get worse - until I jumped off a bridge or something. It was very difficult to accept it was permanent."

For many years, studies looking for a link between leisure noise and hearing loss have produced mixed results, but recently more sensitive acoustic tests have uncovered worrying evidence that Steve's problems are common.

Three years ago, the Australian National Acoustics Laboratory predicted an epidemic of hearing loss in young people. After 6,000 acoustic tests on babies to 90-year-olds, NAL research scientist Dr Eric Le Page found that the average 15-year-old had hearing as damaged as a 45-year-old, and that young people's ears were ageing three times faster than those of their parents.

Research at Keele University picked those most and least exposed to entertainment noise among 15 to 23-year-olds. It found that even among the youngest, those most exposed to noise showed evidence of loss of hearing acuity, which can make it difficult to distinguish speech in a noisy environment.

Professor Ted Evans, who specialises in auditory physiology at Keele University and is vice-chair of the British Society of Audiology, who carried out the research, is convinced the key factor in hearing loss is clubbing. "Clubbing is the new ingredient on the scene, and people seem to be exposed for longer. It's common to get tinnitus as a result of going to clubs. It's usually short-lived, but there is a significant link with deterioration in hearing acuity."

Indeed, research by Professor Adrian Davis at the Medical Research Council's Institute of Hearing Research, found that the proportion of people exposed to high noise levels at clubs has increased substantially. In 1980 to 1984, six per cent of 18 to 25-year-olds received noise doses at clubs exceeding safety standards. By the mid-Nineties that had risen to 18 per cent. Occupational noise, on the other hand, went down.

Club music can often reach 110 to 120 decibels, yet even at 105 decibels, the safe maximum exposure time is 15 minutes. "You can be in a club for two hours plus, getting more than 500 per cent of your daily sound dose," says Mark Anderson, youth service project co-ordinator at the British Tinnitus Association. "The technology is now far more powerful and the average band can put out sound levels that dwarf anything by the Beatles or Rolling Stones."

But there are also suggestions that recreational drugs taken at clubs may have an analgesic effect, desensitising clubbers to loud volumes and encouraging prolonged exposure. According to David Baguley, head of audiology at Addenbrookes hospital in Cambridge, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest that clubbers are less likely to be careful about noise exposure if intoxicated with alcohol, cannabis or ecstasy.

"Clearly one should be concerned about the possible effects of recreational drugs on hearing," he says, "but it's very difficult to factor out the possible direct effects of the drugs themselves from the effect of increased noise exposure."

Prof Evans says: "There is a big question over what will happen in 20 years time when normal ageing adds to hearing loss. Already, young professionals are complaining of difficulties in hearing speech when there is background noise, although they may have entirely normal hearing in other ways. As age adds its proportion of hearing loss, they stand a chance of it all accelerating."

For Steve Jones, the damage has already been done, and although treatment has helped him cope with the tinnitus, he has been forced to radically alter his lifestyle. "At work I have had to ask colleagues not to drop things or slam doors, and I find out about fire-alarm drills beforehand. But my biggest lifestyle change is not to go to clubs or concerts. I can't even go to the cinema or to the pub on a Friday night. They are just too noisy."