Hearing is not lost overnight. The damage is usually gradual and, especially at first, it is common for this change to go unnoticed. First, it becomes difficult to hear a conversation in a very noisy environment, such as a crowded public space, a meal in a restaurant, a chat between co-workers in the office, or while walking down the street. The discomfort worsens until it is difficult to hear even loud voices, and finally, the mild hearing loss turns into deafness, meaning the damage is total and irreversible. In most cases, the cause is simply age: 12.7% of the world’s population over 60 years of age has moderate hearing loss, a percentage that rises to 60% at age 90. , according to data from the World Health Organization (WHO). However, specialists have begun to notice that increasingly younger people come to consultations complaining of ear discomfort.
“The average age has dropped by about ten years. If before patients began to have problems at the age of 70-80, now it is a decade earlier″, says Mari Cruz Iglesias, head of the Otorhinolaryngology unit at the San Carlos Clinical Hospital in Madrid. The doctor explains that the hearing loss and deafness of these patients has nothing to do with the natural aging of the inner ear—which is known as presbycusis—but depends on prolonged exposure to noise. “Traffic, movies, concerts and nightclubs. Even when we go into stores to shop there is music. It is a life wrapped in a lot of acoustic trauma that lasts all the time,” explains Iglesias.
The WHO predicts that by 2050, some 2.5 billion people in the world – that is, one in four – will have some degree of hearing loss. Although the rising numbers are mainly due to demographic changes, such as the global growth of the elderly population, there are other factors that influence a person’s hearing health throughout their life. A main agent is, precisely, excessive noise.
“Unfortunately, we lack objective data, because exhaustive studies have not yet been carried out on this topic,” acknowledges otolaryngologist Miquel Quer, from the Sant Pau hospital in Barcelona. “But it is evident that we live in a society where there is a lot of noise and we have known, for many years, that noise brings about presbycusis. It is not surprising that patients are starting to get younger and younger.”
Typically, exposure to sound intensity of more than 80 decibels for periods of more than 40 hours a week can irreparably damage the sensory cells of the inner ear. Traffic on a large city avenue can reach 60 decibels; the full room of a restaurant reaches 80; the noise of a motorcycle reaches 90 and the music in a nightclub reaches 100. The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work estimates that between 25% and 33% of workers in Europe are exposed to a high level. of noise, at least for a quarter of their working day.
The danger of personal listening devices
In addition to environmental and work factors, Quer focuses on recreational environments, whose most problematic factor is prolonged and high-volume listening to music through personal devices, such as headphones and headphones. A major scientific review published last November in the British Medical Journal Global Health estimated that between 670 and 1.35 billion adolescents and young adults worldwide are at risk of hearing loss due to exposure to unsafe listening practices.
The problem with headphones lies mainly in two factors: the prolonged use of these in environments that are already very noisy, such as streets crowded with people and cars, and the lack of distance between the transmitter and the receiver. ear canal. “Headphones will undoubtedly be the problem of the next generations, of patients who within 10 or 20 years will begin to realize that they have lost hearing ability,” explains Jacinto García Lorenzo, head of service at the Mar de Mar hospital. Barcelona.
Meanwhile, the ENT doctor acknowledges that he has already begun to treat young people who come to his office for cases of presbycusis. “It would not be an exaggeration to say that the middle ages have begun to decline. It is no longer just our grandparents who were deafened by noises at work. There is a whole generation that is now reaching old age and that already has serious problems with their hearing,” he explains. “The prevalence of hearing loss is increasing in the Western world, and Spain is no exception.”
The abuse of personal listening devices is not the only factor that is determining that increasingly younger patients are beginning to have serious hearing problems, although it is surely the newest. ENT doctor Eduardo Raboso, head of service at the La Princesa Hospital in Madrid, explains that among cancer patients the incidence of deafness is beginning to be higher, due to the medications used in chemotherapy and that can be harmful to hearing. . “These are treatments that today are essential to cure, but that a few years ago were not so widespread in the population,” indicates the doctor.
Lack of data and awareness
One of the main problems that experts point to is the lack of data when it comes to quantifying how many patients “in the average age of 50” have some type of hearing impairment. “The feeling is that people go for consultation when it is too late, when they have serious problems and not when they are beginning to realize that something is not working as it should,” explains Luis Lassaletta, president of the Society’s Otology commission. Spanish Otorhinolaryngology. “When they finally turn to a specialist, the only thing that can be done is to put in a cochlear implant, because they already have cases of severe or profound hearing loss.”
Before reaching this resource – which in Spain is used by around 20,000 patients, according to data from the Spanish Society of Otorhinolaryngology – specialists insist on the need to go for a consultation as soon as possible. “Acoustic trauma is caused by combined damage, which lasts for a long time. Everything that has been lost is impossible to recover, so the only thing that works is to preserve the hearing that remains and eliminate listening habits that are dangerous for hearing health,” insists Lassaletta.
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