Silencity

The Truth About Noise

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If you are interested in personal sound control, check out

Nuheara’s IQbuds

this Fast Company review of Nuheara’s IQbuds. Sean Captain reviews Nuheara’s IQbuds, another player in the personal sound control market. Captain states that he has good hearing, but finds stepping into a loud bar or restaurant disconcerting.  Says Captain, “[n]ot only does the noise frazzle my nerves, I get exhausted trying to discern voices from background clatter.”  Oh, we understand.

Enter Nuheara’s IQbuds, a new class of smart Bluetooth wireless earbuds priced at $299 a pair, that allows users to control their immediate soundscape. So, how do the IQbuds work?  Captain writes:

Equipped with built-in microphones, the IQbuds process ambient audio in real time before feeding it to your ears. That allows you to customize how you hear, such as muting background noise, boosting the voices of people you’re talking to, or layering streaming music with ambient sounds so that both come through clearly.

While Captain notes that the sound quality isn’t quite there yet, his test run of the IQbuds in a loud restaurant convinces him of their value.  Captain writes that “[n]o matter what Cannington (Nuheara’s co-founder) sounds like through the IQbuds, it’s so much better than straining to hear him without them.”

Click this link to read Captain’s review of Doppler Lab’s HERE One, a competing earbud manufactured by Nuheara’s “well-funded rival.”  Reading both reviews, it’s clear that there is room for improvement, but with each iteration HERE One and IQbuds have and should continue to get better, more intuitive, and easier to use.  It’s an exciting product for people who find it increasingly difficult to navigate noisy environments, and may offer some reasonable self-help to people with hearing loss who can’t afford hearing aids.

Noise pollution puts songbirds in danger,

making them more vulnerable to predators. Joanna Lawrence, Natural Science News, reports that researchers have found that “noise pollution prevents songbirds from hearing and responding to alarm calls.”  The researchers discovered that anthropogenic noise, “a form of noise pollution caused by human activities,” makes it difficult for the songbirds to hear alarms, leaving them “vulnerable to predation” (i.e., being eaten by other animals).   The research showed that the birds’ failure to hear and respond to alarms caused them “to continue feeding in dangerous situations.”  More research is needed, adds Lawrence, to “fully understand the ecological impacts of anthropogenic noise.”

Declining prevalence of hearing loss in U.S.? What do the data really show?

by Daniel Fink, MD

On December 16, 2016, an article appeared in the New York Times, Americans’ Hearing Loss Decreases Even With Ubiquitous Headphones, which focused on a study by Howard J. Hoffman, MA, et al. (Hoffman) that appeared in the respected medical journal JAMA Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery. The study found that there was a declining prevalence of hearing loss in U.S. adults. The results were considered surprising, as the study showed that the rate of hearing loss in adults age 20-69 had decreased from 15.9% to 14.1%. The researchers, epidemiologists, and statisticians at the National Institute for Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, who conducted the study, are among the best in the world, and the data came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s well-respected National Health and Nutrition Surgery.

The results were considered surprising because two other recent federal reports, one in October 2015 from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) and the other in June 2016 from the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine (IOM) (since renamed the Health and Medicine Division), emphasized that hearing loss, especially in older Americans, was a major national problem. Both of these reports cited an analysis by Frank Lin, MD PhD, Johns Hopkins University, that showed that 48 million Americans suffered significant hearing loss, with the prevalence increasing sharply with age.

I am personally involved in the question of what the facts are, since in an editorial in the January 2017 issue of the American Journal of Public Health I write about the inappropriate use of the 85 decibel occupational noise exposure standard, which should not be applied to the general public, citing Lin’s research and other studies that show increased hearing loss in young people age 12-19.

So, what do the data really show?

I am not an epidemiology expert like Mr. Hoffman and his distinguished co-authors. Their methods appear sound, their data sources as good as one can find in the epidemiology of hearing loss. The first caveat is that this study, as with all studies of the epidemiology of hearing loss in the pubic, is based on survey methodology. A group of 3831 participants are the study population, from which conclusions about the entire U.S. population were drawn. It would be too costly to test hearing in millions of people.

The second caveat is that there are newer techniques, currently only used in research and not yet in clinical use, demonstrating that before hearing loss can be detected by standard hearing tests (called pure tone audiometry), a phenomenon dubbed “hidden hearing loss” may have taken place. Hidden hearing loss has been found in young people and older adults. So while Hoffman’s study is encouraging, it may not be able to completely report what is really happening with Americans’ hearing.

The third point–not a caveat–is that Hoffman et al. studied adults age 20-69 and did not include young people under age 20. Those under age 20 may be the group most at risk of hearing loss due to ubiquitous use of personal music players at loud volumes. Two studies, using lower thresholds for measuring hearing loss than Hoffman et al. or Lin et al. used, found high levels of subclinical hearing loss (hearing loss greater than 15 decibels but less than 25 decibels) in young Americans. One from 1998 found that 15% of young people had measurable hearing loss, and the other from 2010 showed an increase in the prevalence of hearing loss to almost 20%. This is worrisome because studies of auditory acuity in young people traditionally found excellent hearing.

The fourth point also isn’t a caveat, but a quote from the last line of Hoffman’s abstract: “Despite the benefit of delayed onset of HI (hearing impairment), hearing health care needs will increase as the US population grows and ages.”

It’s great news that the percentage of Americans age 20-69 with hearing loss (the epidemiology term for this is “prevalence”) has decreased from 15.9% to 14.1%. But that still means that there are millions of Americans with hearing loss–and that’s too many! Further, subclinical hearing loss appears to be increasing in young Americans, and, as the Hoffman study notes, hearing loss in older Americans is a significant health problem.

Finally, a point of contention: noise exposure is a major cause of hearing loss, and not aging as is implied in the study. Why would men have nearly twice as much hearing impairment (18.6%) as women (9.6%)? Is it an effect of testosterone levels on the auditory system, in which case one might actually expect hearing to improve as men get older, or is it the result of more noise exposure from work and recreational activities in men than women? Noise and hearing loss are still major problems in the U.S. and in the world, and the non-auditory effects of noise on health, which are coming into greater focus, continue unabated. 

So yes, the prevalence of hearing loss in American adults may be declining, but when Lin’s analysis showed that approximately 25% of adults in their 60s, 33% of adults in their 70s, and half of those over age 80 have significant hearing loss–data cited in the PCAST and IOM Committee reports–it is obvious that there is still a major problem and still much to be done to prevent noise-induced hearing loss here and abroad.

And I and others have said before, but it bears repeating: noise-induced hearing loss is 100% preventable. If people avoid noise exposure and protect their ears from noise, they should be able to preserve natural hearing well into old age, rather than needing to rely on assistive hearing devices. The only evidence-based safe noise level remains a 70-decibel time-weighted average for a 24-hour period.

Dr. 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 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.

Is Your Noisy Neighborhood Slowly Killing You?

Inside the science of negative sound effects, and what we can do about them.Mother Jones, writes about our increasingly noisy world and how this noisy soundscape is “contributing to stress-related diseases and early death, especially in and around cities.”  The problem is that ‘[b]y evolutionary necessity, noise triggers a potent stress response.”  Williams explains that “[o]ur nervous systems react to noises that are loud and abrupt…by instructing our bodies to boost the heart rate, breathe less deeply, and release fight-or-flight hormones.”  While this response may have saved us from predators way back when, today they increase our stress hormones, which adversely affects our health.  Williams adds that studies on children and noise exposure show that “children with chronic aircraft, road traffic or rail noise exposure at school have poorer reading ability, memory, and academic performance on national standardised tests.”

The article is very interesting and one of the better mainstream media pieces on noise and its effect on human health.  Additionally, Williams touches on an important topic that gets very little attention.  Namely, Williams discusses the uneven impact of noise on disadvantaged communities:

You can probably guess which communities face the greatest sonic barrage: the same ones stuck with the worst air, the shoddiest housing, and so on. Noise as a social justice issue is just beginning to gain traction.

Click the first link to read the entire article.  It is well worth your time.

Link via @livequiet (Quiet Revolution).

If living over an airport flight path is hell, imagine what it’s like living near a mililtary base:

Residents fed up with fighter jet noise. Madison, Wisconsin residents gird themselves as the U.S. Air Force looks for two bases to house F-35 Lightning IIs, with Truax Field in Madison on the finalist short list. The residents are concerned because they are already exposed to jet noise from F-16s.  One resident stated that the “windows of her home on Madison’s north side rattle when military jets from Truax fly over.”  Another described the F-16 noise as “ear-shattering.”

Naturally, there are forces who want the F-35 to come to Madison, claiming that the move “could create hundreds of jobs” (emphasis added).  Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce president Zach Brandon asserts that “the economic benefits and the need for communities to contribute to national defense efforts outweigh the annoyance of noise” (emphasis added).  Apparently Zach Brandon does not live over the flight path nor is aware of the health implications of noise exposure.  Or maybe he’s just distracted by visions of dollar bills.  Good luck, Madison residents.

An interesting read about how the brain

extracts meaning from noise. Have you suddenly been able to understand someone with a thick accent or identify the lyrics in a song and felt like “your brain appear[ed] to be re-tuning to recognize speech that was previously incomprehensible”?  The University of California at Berkeley reports that its “neuroscientists have now observed this re-tuning in action by recording directly from the surface of a person’s brain as the words of a previously unintelligible sentence suddenly pop out after the subject is told the meaning of the garbled speech.”  Click the link to read more about this fascinating study.

Here’s something positive to anticipate in the coming new year:

Will 2017 Produce a Hearing Breakthrough?  Michelle Perron, The Hearing Journal, writes about what we can anticipate in 2017, stating that “[f]rom reducing the severity of noise-induced hearing loss to restoring hearing via regrowth of stereocilia, hearing professionals have reasons to be hopeful in 2017 and beyond.”  Well, nice to read about something hopeful about 2017.

Hearing test developed to detect hidden hearing loss

UConn School of Medicine researchers develop first hidden hearing loss hearing test. EurekAlert! reports that “[t]wo researchers at UConn School of Medicine have developed a new hearing test that can identify hearing loss or deficits in some individuals considered to have normal or near-normal hearing in traditional tests.”  Leslie R. Bernstein, professor of neuroscience and surgery at UConn, who conducted the study with Constantine Trahiotis, emeritus professor of neuroscience and surgery, explained the importance of the new test by noting that “acquired hearing loss from excessive noise exposure has long been known to produce significant, and sometimes debilitating, hearing deficits.”  EurekAlert! writes that the “new research suggests that hearing loss may be even more widespread than was once thought,” adding that with this new test, there now is a “validated technique to identify ‘hidden’ hearing deficits that would likely go undetected with traditional audiograms.”

Is It Safe to Turn Down the Volume of Hospital Alarms?

New Study Chimes In: “Yes.” If you have ever spent any time in a hospital, whether as a visitor or especially as a patient, you probably wondered how the patients sleep with the constant din caused by monitors, particularly the alarms. The answer, apparently, is “they can’t.” While some sort of alarm is needed to alert staff when a patient is having a crisis, Anesthesiology News reports that “[t]he overabundance and high volume of hospital alarms can have deleterious effects on patients and providers, impairing clinician performance and possibly compromising patient safety (citation omitted).” The good news? The study’s author found that “clinician performance is maintained with alarms that are softer than background noise.”

Coming soon to a hospital near you: A good night’s rest!