The Deafness Epidemic

Previous thoughts on losing my hearing.

Picture the scene: a class room in 2032 in a primary school. The teacher is handing out paper for the pupils to draw a picture of their family. The first girl starts drawing the house, then the doors, the car, and pet dog, and then her mum, dad, and two brothers, who are both further up in the school. And as she details the parents’ appearance, draws eyes, nose, and ears and adds in a tiny little dot on each ear, right where the ear canal would be.

The teacher doesn’t bat an eyelid. She scans the rest of the children’s drawings and sees the same little dot on the ear. As the class nears the end of the lesson the children start being louder and louder. She starts to hear them more clearly with each passing second, and to compensate she turns down her hearing aid.

See, the above scenario is a bit silly – it’s fictitious of course, and speculative at best, but it’s a future I am thinking about almost daily. Indeed, it’s closer to my own hear than others for reason that I will explain, but I am so worried about it I feel like I should start doing something about it.  The problem I worry about is an epidemic of people with hearing problems.

All because of Apple earphones.

I am going deaf. Surely and slowly I am losing the hearing in my left ear, and despite my right ear’s attempts to compensate. Each year I go for my offshore medical I am told that my lifestyle precludes hearing loss; I got to concerts and listen to music daily. However, I’d go so far as to say that despite all of my activities, my hearing loss isn’t based on these activities – I’d been getting hearing tests since I was a child. I knew of my hearing loss back in 2007 when I first went for a medical, and even before then I knew that is was a problem – you notice it when you meet me for the first time, especially when we are in loud places. I will turn my right ear to you just to make out what you are saying.

I have also picked up the rather nice skill of lip reading. I’m not professional at it, but regularly I can read lips and understand what people are saying from not only muted TVs, but across offices and rooms. It’s like my super power.  I will admit though that going to many gigs when I was younger probably didn’t help my hearing, the biggest problem for me was that there already was a problem in the first place.

The consequences of this are dire – I am going to lose the hearing in my left ear in the future, and probably need some sort of implant or hearing aid device to help me out. It’s something that I am resolved to happen. So, to help and mitigate the problems, I have made some major changes in my life.

The first is the application of ear plugs at concerts. I started this a few years ago as a trial, and only really decided it was needed when going to see Mogwai (who nicely supplied me with a pair with their latest album). The sound is muted and slightly numbed, but it does nothing to the fidelity of the sound. You can still hear the singing and playing, and actually has been known to increase the fidelity in some concerts, which belies the instinctive thoughts you’d have of it all. 

The second was to properly buy a good pair of earphones. I’d had some good pairs over the years, but the new pair I recently obtained are professional grade. They cancel a lot of sound out from around me, meaning that I can lower the volume of my iPod to a lower level than previously. I have never had my music too loud anyway, but lowering it even further (to ¼ of the sound output of the phone) is an even better way of mitigating my problems. Indeed, the earphones are even expandable to custom moulded fitted buds which would increase the comfort and also increase the protection. I was told I was mad to spend money on earphones, but when you consider I wear them for 10 hours a day, averaging over 50 hours a week… it is a worthwhile investment.

Which brings me onto my original scenario; the most widely propagated type of ‘phones out there by far are the white iPod ‘phones packaged with every iPhone, iPad and iPod. They are the worst ‘phones I have ever used in my life. It’s astonishing to me to think that someone would spend £200 on a device to play music, yet use the ‘phones that come with these devices. Even when I bought my MiniDisc player at University in 2003 I never used the ‘phones that came with it, as they were dreadful then. They’ve not got much better since.
And, even thought I am a muso, I am not talking about just the definition of the music that they play. The iPod ‘phones are dreadful for fidelity and sound, but that’s not going to cause people to have problems later in life with regards to their hearing – it’s the fact that they leak sound so badly that people have to turn up the volume to disproportionate levels.  Anyone who has ever been on a bus or train without their own ‘phones plugged in will have came across the horrendous sound of someone’s music spilling out of the iPod. It’s a travesty. The reason is because the sound is so low that they need to up the volume to get the sound that they want.

In the future I foresee everyone needing hearing aids because of this – especially the youngest of the new generation who grew up with the music being piped into their ears. I worry greatly for this – and the scenario of all adults wearing “dots in their ears” as described in the supposed scenario is scarily prescient, I think.
What can be done? Apple should put better ‘phones in their products? Only allow low levels of volume to come out of the iPod? Or how about we educate people to understand the long term effects of loud noises on the ear? I liken it to the cigarette and cancer scares of the 1960s and how damaging it will be for the future.

The difference is that listening to music on ‘phones isn’t as addictive as smoke (although, tell that to someone listening to the latest Wild Beasts record) and the science needn’t be proven. It’s a problem that needs fixing.