Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

1.1 Billion Adolescents Are At Risk For Permanent Hearing Loss

By Rebecca ShohetPublished March 11, 2015

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With ever-increasing advancements in technology, especially nw technological sound devices, more individuals, especially young adults, are expected to lose their hearing. Multiple organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) are trying to spread awareness and help lower these projections through multiple initiatives, but is it their right to do so?Which other governmental groups or nonprofit organizations, if any, should be held responsible for these initiatives?
By Rebecca Shohet, 3/11/2015

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 360 million people—over 5% of the population—currently suffer from some sort of hearing loss. Although of course, a large portion of these patients are born with their hearing disabilities or suffer from diseases that bring upon hearing loss as a side effect, WHO estimates that more than half of all of the current world-wide cases of hearing loss are either completely avoidable or at least remediable with the proper intervention techniques. 

While 5% of the population already suffering from treatable hearing loss or impairment already seems like an unnecessarily large portion of the population (especially for a disease that can be prevented) recent projections show this number to increase even further in the near future. More specifically, studies now show that 1.1 billion current young adults are at a risk of partial to permanent hearing loss.


Recent studies conducted by WHO show that almost half of all young adults are exposed to unsafe levels of sound from their daily use of digital and audio devices such as mobile phones and laptops. Similarly, around 40% of adolescents are exposed to potentially damaging levels of sound at entertainment sites, such as clubs, that they often frequent.


Physicians categorize/classify "safe listening" as the lower spectrum of intensity, loudness, frequency, and duration of the sound one is listening to. Exposure to sounds too intense for the human ear can result in tinnitus, or temporary hearing loss. Continued exposure for prolonged periods of time can eventually lead to permanent damage to sensory cells and eventually irreversible hearing loss.  Dr. Etienne Krug, WHO Director for the Department for Management of Noncommunicable Diseases, Disability, Violence and Injury Prevention classifies half of these new cases as avoidable. She warns young adults of the importance of maintaining their good hearing and that once they lose it, it will be very hard to get back. 


WHO, CDC, and other health corporations particularly focus on educating individuals on how to protect themselves from permanent hearing loss and on creating and implementing intervention techniques for these young adults at risk. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (particularly stresses intervention, no matter the stage of the loss of hearing. They also recommended the absolute highest level of noise exposure to be no more than 85 dB for no longer than eight hours per day. And of course, those exposed to higher noise levels at work or other areas they frequent for prolonged periods of time should lower their time spent in these places.


WHO and other organizations are working together to bring about education and to spread awareness for premature hearing loss. For example, WHO is currently pushing owners of noisy venues such as restaurants, concert halls, and bars, to offer earplugs and "chill-out" rooms. One of these groups is the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. This organization advises the use of earplugs while in an environment with loud sounds one cannot control. These groups are also encouraging patients to speak out to employers and managers should they ever feel uncomfortable with the noise levels in workplaces and recreational areas in which they often work. They advise adolescents who listen to music, particularly with headphones, to try to listen on lower volumes (never at the maximum volume) and to take regular breaks during listening times.

However, WHO and other awareness groups do not believe that their efforts alone are enough and are currently in the process of demanding a larger push on the part of the government to increase knowledge and understanding of the severity of hearing loss. Each March 3rd is International Ear Care Day and this year in particular the WHO is making an extra effort to raise awareness and promote overall ear care and health. With its new "Making Listening Safe" campaign, WHO is able to particularly target young adults and adolescents and encourage them to engage in safer listening practices. It also uses the day to advocate for more attention and resources for efforts and awareness of hearing loss and disabilities. 



Many societal implications come along with these new social programs initiatives.  Although the WHO and partnering organizations have been extremely successful in their hearing loss prevention initiatives, they must also take into account considerable pushback from members of the hearing loss community. As of now, these organizations are reaching out to young adults facing potential hearing loss. However, if they change their course of action in the near future and start to target those born with hearing loss or other hearing impairments instead, they may find themselves having to face off against a prominent group in today's society.