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Why Your Headphones Are Dangerous

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Since the invention of the Sony Walkman in the early 1980s, personal stereos have been ubiquitous. Being able to listen to your favorite music pretty much anywhere without bothering others accomplishes everything from passing the time while traveling to fueling workouts to discouraging chatty strangers. It’s the ultimate tune-out in a sometimes overly crowded world.

Young people, in particular, have an affinity for headphones and earbuds. The problem is, they also have an affinity for blasting their music, movies, or video games, and often don’t understand the long-term damage they could be doing to their hearing.

The National Institute of Health reports that 28 million Americans suffer from significant hearing loss–10 million of which were caused by noise exposure. Here’s what you need to know to keep your and your kids’ hearing intact:

Risk Factors for Hearing Loss
There’s no question that exposure to high decibels can cause hearing loss. High energy sound waves will over-stimulate and, eventually, kill the hair cells in the inner ear, with high-frequency cells usually being the first to go. Even if the cells aren’t completely killed, damage to them causes diminished hearing and tinnitus, which is that ringing you hear after a loud concert. Tinnitus can be permanent and debilitating.

Earbuds that nestle the speakers directly in your ears are the most dangerous, according to audiologists, because the unfiltered sound is closer to the delicate structures of the inner ear and can cause more damage, and faster, than equally loud ambient noise.

The Distraction Problem
Even if you have your music turned down, headphones or earbuds create a very real problem with distraction. Most runners wear them, which means they can’t hear ambient noise like cars or, frighteningly, attackers coming up behind them. It’s even more dangerous for cyclists to listen to music while riding, since they’re on the actual road with traffic. Even pedestrians who wear earbuds are at greater risk of an accident, not only because they can’t hear what’s going on around them, but also because music causes people to tune out their surroundings. It’s fine when you’re sitting on an airplane or a bus. But when you’re out and about, especially in the city, you need to be more alert than personal stereos allow.

Working Out with Headphones
Did you know that when you’re exercising, your hearing is even more susceptible to damage because the blood is flowing to your muscles, lungs, and heart and away from your ears? In addition, when you are working out in a loud environment, such as a gym or area with a lot of traffic, research shows you are likely to turn up the volume to drown out the ambient noise. This, combined with greater sensitivity of the ears is a recipe for hearing loss.
There’s one more thing to consider when working out with earbuds or headphones: scientists tell us that we’re more likely to be injured because music distracts from what’s going on in our bodies while we exercise. Sure, that’s one of the benefits—you can bear the discomfort of running a little better with Rihanna pumping through your head—but the music can also make you miss or ignore pain that could be a sign of real injury. In addition, music makes it hard to regulate how hard you’re working, unless your playlist is specifically designed for the optimum pace of each part of your workout, which makes it easy to overextend and burn out early.

Kids and Teens
Kids and teens in particular are in danger of noise-related hearing loss. Not only does music play a huge part in the lives of most teens, but they also tend to listen longer and louder than adults. According to a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, hearing loss among teens had risen to nearly 20 percent of kids age 12 to 19 by 2006 (compared to 14.9 percent from 1988 to 1994). Experts warn that–even when it occurs in childhood–hearing loss is not reversible, and is more likely to progress with age.

Unfortunately, hearing loss in teenagers can affect more than just whether they hear you calling them for dinner. Compromised hearing has been shown to have a detrimental effect on both academic performance and social development. Researchers have also found that boys are more likely than girls to suffer hearing loss. If you have kids, consider investing in a device that locks the volume control at a healthy level to protect them.

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