Hearing loss on the rise in young adults, expert warns

Melanie Campbell, an Edmonton hearing specialist, is sounding the alarm over the rising risks of early hearing loss.

'The tough part about hearing loss is that it's really insidious,' Melanie Campbell says

More than one billion young adults are at risk of hearing loss, international statistics show. (Stan Olszewski/Dallas Morning News/Associated Press)

Many young Albertans may be destined to swap out their headphones for hearing aids, an Edmonton hearing specialist warns.

"That group particularly loves music, they love it loud and they have very few worries about the future," Melanie Campbell, a speech language pathologist in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, said an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"We want people to feel empowered to turn the sound down."

More than one billion young adults are at risk of hearing loss, the latest statistics from the World Health Organization show. 

Among people aged 12-35 years, almost half are exposed to dangerously high levels of noise from personal audio devices like headphones while four out of 10 are exposed to unsafe levels of sound at concerts and other entertainment venues. 

"The primary cause these days is noise-induced hearing loss, and that means noise that we invite into our ears," said Campbell. "Everything is elevated."

To curb the trend, Campbell has teamed with with the Bridges program, to promote Sound Sense. The project, spearheaded by the Hearing Foundation of Canada, helps spread awareness about hearing loss in schools across the country.

In Edmonton over the past decade, Campbell and her graduate students have been sharing the prevention message with more than 4,000 students each year.

'Those little sounds disappear'

She says too many young people take their sense of hearing for granted, until it's already too late. 

"The tough part about hearing loss is that it's really insidious," Campbell said. "You don't lose hearing loss overnight.

"It creeps up and you gradually forget that you're not hearing the door squeak, or you don't hear people's heels on the floor. Those little sounds disappear and they're sort of out of mind."

Blaring headphones, thumping speakers, wailing sirens in rush-hour traffic. The world is getting louder, and the sounds can be deafening, Campbell said.

Even everyday sounds that don't register as harmful, like a blaring radio or the rumble of an engine, can be harmful over time. 

The sensitive structures of the inner ear are easily damaged, she said. Earbuds, which funnel music directly into the inner ear, can be especially harmful.

"The inner ear is a little snail-like structure," she said. "And inside that, believe it or not, in each ear there are 15,000 hair cells that pick up the vibrations of sound and transmit them, electronically through to the brain," Campbell said.

"When you listen to sound at too loud of a level for too long a time, those are destroyed.

"They can not regenerate. Once they're gone, they're gone."