Self-Help Tips From Dr Sarah Brewer

Could You Be Training Yourself Deaf?

I go to the gym regularly to improve my fitness. Add to that a couple of bike rides a week and I guess I’m in pretty good shape for my age. But in dealing with one health issue, I may be creating another. Let me explain. The gym I go to is very popular, particularly with men and women in their twenties and early thirties, so naturally the gym plays music videos all day.

As a man of a certain age, I neither enjoy the music they play, nor the volume at which it is played, and would rather listen to my own choice of entertainment; so I wear earpieces while training, like a high percentage of my fellow gym goers.

All good news so far. There I am, running on the treadmill, listening to some age-appropriate rock from the 70’s and 80’s. This is where the problem starts. The gym is playing music at a level that requires me to turn up my own music to a high volume to overcome the background noise. As a result, I’ve recently noticed that I can only listen safely for about 30 mins or so. In one gym session I am receiving the equivalent of three days Daily Sound Allowance (DSA) and am probably damaging my hearing. Add in my other recreational headphone listening, especially on public transport, and I need to think about safeguarding my hearing.

It’s not just mature men or women who should be concerned about their noise exposure. A recent study in the US suggests that Tweenagers (these between 10 and 14 years of age) are spending an average of four hours every day on their devices, much of this time while using headphones. When you consider that these devices can produce dose levels that are damaging after only 20 minutes a day, a troubling picture is emerging.

The science bit

Human beings have around 15,000 auditory hair cells in each ear at birth; you don’t get any more and when they’re gone they are gone – and so is your hearing. Most of us are familiar with the dangers of very loud sounds and the permanent damage they can cause. Less well known is that exposure to large sound doses, regularly and repeatedly, can cause irreparable damage to the hair cells within our ears. This damage takes longer to show up and may be ‘silently’ affecting us all.

What is a sound dose?

A sound dose is a complex calculation that takes into account how long you listen for, how loud you listen and the energy content of what you listen to. For example, speech is relatively low energy content so you can listen for a long period of time at a high volume level without experiencing a particularly high sound dose. However, my much-loved adult orientated rock has a high energy content so will give you a high sound dose in a short period of time.

As a result of a number of high profile campaigns, the majority of headphone users are now aware of the risks. However few of them act as until recently, the only tool available has been the simple volume level warning on their device which, if obeyed, makes the content inaudible in many listening situations.

The London Underground, for example, is so loud that many users are forced to ignore their device warnings and turn their volume to a damaging level on a daily basis. Long term, this will damage your hearing for good.

So what’s to be done?

We clearly don’t want to stop headphone use, but we can be smart about it. Ideally, you would manage your daily exposure to ensure you don’t overdo it and that, if you do, at least you will know about it.

  • The first thing to do is to download a hearing safeguarding app for headphone users such as HearAngel, which gives you information on your exposure, much as a Fit Bit monitors your physical activity. This lets you know when you are overdoing it so you can make informed decisions. Some apps also have optional, automatic protection and parental control features so you can safeguard your children’s hearing.
  • Secondly, consider the headphones you use. If you listen on public transport, as about 30% of people do, consider upgrading from your ear buds to some good quality over-ear headphones. The sound quality is usually better and the over-ear cups will reduce the background noise so you can listen at a lower level, extending your safe listening period.
  • Finally, if you travel on very noisy public transport, such as London Underground for example, you might want to consider getting some active noise cancelling headphones. These headphones use very clever electronics to reduce the background noise even more, allowing you to further reduce your listening level and extend your safe listening period.

Please don’t train yourself into hearing loss. It takes a little while to become noticeable, but when you do notice it the damage is already done, is permanent and it is too late. Then, no more adult orientated rock! Use the technology that is available to help you to protect yourself and most of all, enjoy your listening.


Stephen Wheatley is a Co-Founder of HearAngel LimitEar Ltd, a company formed eight years ago to develop technologies to protect the hearing of headphone users in the work environment. He is a technology business specialist and has been awarded several patents for headphone hearing safeguarding inventions. and

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