There are now an estimated 8 billion people on the planet—and up to 1.35 billion of them are at risk of hearing loss from listening to too-loud music, research suggests. In a study published in BMJ Global Health, researchers say roughly 1 in 4 people aged 12 to 34 likely listen to sound at unsafe levels—identified as above 80 decibels for more than 40 hours per week—using devices including earbuds, and 1 in 2 are exposed to excessive noise at music venues, where sound levels are poorly regulated, the Guardian reports. Lead study author Lauren Dillard of South Carolina's Medical University joined colleagues in reviewing 33 studies from 2000 to 2021 that looked at sound levels from personal listening devices and music venues, involving 19,000 people combined.
Researchers estimated 23% of adults and 27% of minors were exposed to excessive noise from personal listening devices, while 48% of people aged 12 to 34 were exposed to excessive noise at clubs, bars, and concert venues. Extrapolating those figures, researchers guess that between 670 million and 1.35 billion people aged 12 to 34 could be at risk of hearing loss, including later in life. "Damage from unsafe listening can compound over the life course, and noise exposure earlier in life may make individuals more vulnerable to age-related hearing loss," they note. But "even single instances of unsafe listening may cause physiological damage to the auditory system, presenting as transient or permanent tinnitus and/or changes to hearing."
The CDC notes prolonged noise above 70 decibels can begin to damage hearing, while noise above 120 decibels "can cause immediate harm." The study found headphone users "commonly" listen at volumes of up to 105 decibels, while average sound levels at venues range from 104 decibels to 112 decibels, per CNN. At the 105 to 110 decibel range, hearing loss is possible in just two to five minutes, according to the CDC. The results show "the urgent need to implement policy focused on safe listening habits worldwide," researchers say. In the meantime, Dillard recommends using headphones that block background noise so volume can be kept low, per CNN. She also advises using ear protection and taking breaks from the noise at venues.