The nation's hearing – has it all gone a bit Pete Tong?
18 Dec 2013
MRC researchers ask the public to help them find out if loud music is contributing to hearing loss
To round off a year of the Medical Research Council’s Centenary celebrations, researchers from the MRC and the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) are today launching a unique mass participation study to see if listening to loud music is contributing to the increase in hearing loss in the UK population. The scientists will be looking at how our listening past affects our hearing present.
The latest figures published in the International Journal of Audiologyestimate that around 1 in 6 adults in the UK have at least some hearing loss – enough to cause difficulties in communicating, especially when listening in social situations with background sounds, such as other people talking. This is an increase of around 12 per cent over the last two decades, and given the ageing population, is likely to rise further. Approximately 10 million people in the UK have some form of hearing loss and this is expected to rise to 14.5 million by 2031.
The World Health Organization has stated that the single biggest cause of preventable hearing loss is loud noise. Hearing damage caused by workplace noise will have been reduced by the decrease in heavy industry, the legal restrictions on noise and the provision of protective equipment such as ear defenders. But what effect has loud music had on the population’s hearing?
Over almost exactly the same period of time as the Medical Research Council has existed, we have had the ability to play music at levels capable of causing damage through the advent of amplification. Might almost a century of amplified music have something to do with it the prevalence of hearing difficulties, or is hearing loss just ‘part of growing old’?
The online experiment, funded by the Medical Research Foundation, is aimed at everyone: younger or older in age, better or worse in hearing and with a wide variety of musical experiences and hearing abilities. The researchers are asking as many people as possible to go online and tell them about their listening habits and complete a very quick assessment of their hearing for speech in a background of noise. If a lifetime of loud music does lead to hearing loss, the scientists expect to see a correlation between the participants’ reported previous listening habits and current hearing abilities.
Dr Michael Akeroyd, from the MRC Institute of Hearing Research, is leading the project. He said: “Many studies of music-related hearing loss have focused on musicians who may be exposed to loud music almost every day. But far less is known about the cumulative effects of loud-music listening on the hearing of the general public. The primary purpose of this project is to determine if there is such a link.
“Amplified music has been around for about as long as the Medical Research Council. Back in 1913, when the MRC came into being, music was played on horn gramophones and the first electronic amplifier, the valve, was only about 5 years old. But in the last 100 years or so, there has been revolution after revolution in music amplification and we can now play music for hours at levels that could be potentially damaging. A lot of MP3 players or headphones will be bought for Christmas presents, and there’s the temptation to turn the music up loud. We want to find out if prolonged exposure to loud music really does cause hearing problems.”
The UK’s largest hearing loss charity, Action on Hearing Loss (formerly RNID), has long campaigned on the dangers of loud music, and the importance of protecting and, in turn, prolonging your hearing. Chief Executive, Paul Breckell, said:
“Damage to your hearing is irreversible – and, contrary to popular opinion, hearing loss is not a condition that only older people need to concern themselves about. With many nightclubs and concerts measuring 20 or 30 decibels above the safe noise level, more and more young people are likely to start feeling the effects of their music-loving, gig-going habits. Hearing loss not only rules out our enjoyment of music, but has the potential to lead to unemployment, isolation and has even been linked to dementia. The MRC’s public experiment is such a vital piece of work to offer a robust understanding of and insight into how people stave off early loss of their hearing.”
Take part in the Hearing Survey
More about the experiment
Participants are asked to complete a short questionnaire about how much loud music listening they have done across their life (e.g. “How often would you say you went to gigs, concerts, and festivals?”). The questions cover gigs, clubs, and portable audio devices such as MP3/Walkmans, and are followed by a standard set of questions asking about their hearing. They are then asked to do a short listening experiment, which gives a measurement of their ability to identify words in a background of noise. This is called a speech-in-noise test and, while a very good indication of hearing loss, it is a simple measure of someone’s hearing and is not a substitute for a proper hearing test. Anyone who has concerns about their hearing should contact their GP.
Who devised the experiment?
The experiment was produced by hearing scientists at the MRC Institute of Hearing Research in Nottingham and Glasgow (Dr Michael Akeroyd (lead), Dr Bill Whitmer, Professor David Moore) and the NIHR Nottingham Hearing Biomedical Research Unit (NIHR Nottingham Hearing BRU) - Robert Mackinnon and Dr Heather Fortnum. This experiment extends work done by Robert MacKinnon, a PhD student at the BRU, who developed a questionnaire and helped in the design of the speech test. It also extends the major programmes of the UK BioBank and the London LOLIPOP study (both MRC co-funded), part of whose data collection involved self-report questions on music and a speech-in-noise test. There have also been two earlier large-scale experiments that have studied the risks of amplified music, one from Norway (Tambs et al., 2003), the other from France (Meyer-Bischet al, 1996), though neither of these included speech-in-noise tests.
This project is part of the Medical Research Council Centenary year programme of activities and is generously supported by the Medical Research Foundation
Image caption: A scanning electron microscope of a cochlea from a guinea pig
Image credit Image courtesy of Dave Furness, Keele University
Notes to editors
Medical Research Foundation
The Medical Research Foundation is the Medical Research Council's independently managed charity. It receives funds from the giving public to support medical research, training, public engagement and dissemination of knowledge. Since it was first established in 1920, the MRC has been able to accept charitable bequests, endowments and donations from the public to contribute towards the costs of the research that it undertakes. The MRC registered these charitable funds with the Charity Commission in the late 1960's and its charity - the Medical Research Foundation - has been successfully supporting medical research for over 80 years.
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