Personal music systems may be hazardous to hearing

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Improvements in digital technology have meant that an increasing number of people are listening to music via personal music systems such as MP3 players and mobile phones for prolonged periods of time. These music systems are increasingly small and lightweight with considerable storage capacity and improved sound quality – which has led to prolonged use at higher volume settings, particularly among young people.

A paper published in The Journal of Laryngology & Otology (JLO) finds, alarmingly, that large proportions of young adults are listening to personal music systems at levels higher than safety levels recommended by regulatory bodies. The study finds that listening to music through personal music systems at high volume through ear phones or ear buds may be potentially hazardous to hearing.

The paper’s co-authors – from the All India Institute of Speech and Hearing in Mysore, South India – recruited 60 participants between the ages of 15 and 30 years old for their study, which looked at regular users of personal music systems and non-users of personal music systems. The researchers also used manikins to measure the output of sound pressure levels of personal music systems.

Supported by India’s Department of Science and Technology, the study found that an alarming proportion of young adults were using personal music systems at levels that could potentially damage their hearing. The study found that people who listened to personal music systems at levels higher than 80 decibels had significantly poorer hearing thresholds in high frequencies when compared to other participants. The preferred range for listening to music among participants was 51 to 98 decibels – while workplace noise regulation in the UK, for example, limits the daily exposure levels to 80 decibels.

The study also found that 33 per cent of participants reached the maximum allowable noise level after listening to music for more than four hours, while 20 per cent reached the limit within one hour – with 30 per cent of used personal music systems at levels higher than the permissible limit.

People who listened to personal music systems at levels higher than 80 decibels also showed significant difficulty in perceiving speech in adverse listening conditions, compared to other participants in the study. The authors suggest that this reduced function may be linked to damage to the cochlear structure.

However, all the participants in the study had normal hearing in the conventional frequency range, the study found.

“Our results suggest that listening to music through personal music systems at higher volume levels (over 80 dB LAeq) may not result in clinically significant hearing loss, yet may cause subtle pre-clinical damage to the auditory system, and over the years such behaviour may be hazardous to hearing,” the authors conclude.

The full paper, published in The Journal of Laryngology & Otology, “Personal music systems and hearing” by U A Kumar and S R Deepashree, can be viewed free of charge until 31 August 2016 here.

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