Why do humans suffer hearing loss from noise?

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By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Why do humans suffer hearing loss from noise? The cellular, sub-cellular, and even molecular reasons for how noise damages the auditory system are known, but why?

In a fascinating article in The Hearing Journal, evolutionary biologist William Shofner, PhD, notes that humans and our animal forebears evolved in a largely quiet environment. Exquisitely acute hearing was important for finding prey or avoiding threats, but resistance to noise damage in the auditory system conferred no selective advantage.

Our world only started getting noisy as cities evolved, and especially since the Industrial Revolution. That is, our ears haven’t evolved to handle the noise, hence the epidemic of noise-induced hearing loss reported by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Shofner’s last paragraph says it all:

Why didn’t evolution make the ear more noise-resistant? Again, evolution does not proceed with purpose. Simply stated, the human ear did not evolve under conditions of high sound levels. Any genetic mutation that might have led to a noise-resistant ear was likely not selected because it did not provide any benefit for survival and reproductive success in the pre-historic acoustic environment of early mammals. Natural selection is an exceedingly slow process that occurs over many generations, and the susceptibility of the human ear to noise-induced damage shows how natural selection is unable to keep up with rapid changes in an organism’s environment (Evol Applications. 2008). Technology has produced an acoustic environment that has changed much faster than the sluggish pace of human evolution. This evolutionary explanation of why the human ear is so susceptible to damage at highly intense noise levels provides a valuable perspective that audiologists can offer patients to prevent NIHL.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America.

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