TUESDAY, Dec. 28, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- Over the last two decades hearing loss due to "recreational" noise exposure such as blaring club music has risen among adolescent girls, and now approaches levels previously seen only among adolescent boys, a new study suggests.
And teens as a whole are increasingly exposed to loud noises that could place their long-term auditory health in jeopardy, the researchers added.
"In the '80s and early '90s young men experienced this kind of hearing damage in greater numbers, probably as a reflection . . . of what young men and young women have traditionally done for work and fun," noted study lead author Elisabeth Henderson, an M.D.-candidate in Harvard Medical School's School of Public Health in Boston.
"[This] means that boys have generally been faced with a greater degree of risk in the form of occupational noise exposure, fire alarms, lawn mowers, that kind of thing," she said. "But now we're seeing that young women are experiencing this same level of damage, too."
Henderson and her colleagues report their findings in the Dec. 27 online edition of Pediatrics.
To explore the risk for hearing damage among teens, the authors analyzed the results of audiometric testing conducted among 4,310 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 19, all of whom participated in the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys.
Comparing loud noise exposure across two periods of time (from 1988 to 1994 and from 2005 to 2006), the team determined that the degree of teen hearing loss had generally remained relatively stable. But there was one exception: teen girls.
Between the two study periods, hearing loss due to loud noise exposure had gone up among adolescent girls, from 11.6 percent to 16.7 percent -- a level that had previously been observed solely among adolescent boys.
When asked about their past day's activities, study participants revealed that their overall exposure to loud noise and/or their use of headphones for music-listening had rocketed up, from just under 20 percent in the late 1980s and early 1990s to nearly 35 percent of adolescents in 2005-2006.
But increased headphone-use, the authors noted, did not appear to be the underlying cause of the increase in hearing loss among teen girls.
Instead, the authors noted that by 2005-2006 girls appeared to be experiencing similar amounts of exposure to recreational noise as boys, while being less likely to use hearing protection.
The authors also speculated that the rise in hearing loss among girls could, in large measure, reflect an increased exposure to factors not included in the survey -- the extremely loud music often found in club or music concert settings.
So what's your average club-going American teen to do?
"Use protection," advised Henderson. "I mean, when she's on stage Lady Gaga definitely has some kind of ear block in her ear to protect herself, so why shouldn't her fans? Clear noise blockers put in the ear lower the decibel that you are exposed to in that environment. And in terms of headphones, I would say kids should get the ones that have sound-blocking capabilities. The ones that muffle outside noise, so you don't have to crank up the volume to the max when you're listening to music."
For his part, Dr. Donald G. Keamy, a Boston-based surgeon at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, as well as an instructor in the departments of otology and laryngology at Harvard Medical School, expressed little surprise with the findings.
"Certainly the rise of iPods and other devices of that sort is a factor, since everyone's using them," he suggested. "But with regard to concerts, there have been other studies that have measured someone's hearing before and after a concert, and found that right after there is a temporary loss -- which implies that there's acoustic damage to the middle ear that the ear may initially recover from. But over time and over repeated exposure it can lose the ability to recover from that," Keamy explained.
"And of course the problem extends beyond concerts," he added. "Kids that mow the lawn or use guns in hunting -- those sorts of things involve terrible noise exposure, and without protection there's a risk for hearing loss as life goes on. So I would say what I say to my patients who come in with pre-existing hearing loss: 'use protection.'"
For more on noise-induced hearing loss, visit the U.S. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.