Years of playing and listening to loud music left Denis Campbell in
need of a hearing aid. Now, he says, his generation must face up to
the damage caused by noise
Sunday June 1 2008
The audiologist didn't mince her words. 'You've got the hearing of
someone 30 years older than you.' The results on the audiogram showed
that I have 'severe' hearing loss with high-frequency sounds, she
said. It's not what a 44-year-old expects or wants to hear.
It wasn't a surprise, though. I've struggled for many years to hear
clearly in almost every situation: at work, in bars or restaurants,
at parties, in front of the TV, at the cinema, or on the mobile.
Partial deafness is very frustrating. It's also usually irreversible.
Unlike most parts of the body, damaged inner ear hair cells don't regenerate.
I've lost count of the number of times I've missed out on hearing a
joke, gossip or discussion of a film. But for many years a reluctance
to wear NHS-issue hearing aids meant I did nothing.
But as of 10 days ago I am no longer one of what the Royal National
Institute for Deaf People says is the four million people who could
benefit from wearing a hearing aid but don't, and am now among the
two million who do.
Nanotechnology and modern design mean my £1,395 silver Sonic Ion
hearing aids are probably less noticeable than a Bluetooth. Hardly
anyone has spotted them. A see-through plastic tube connects the
oblong microphone-cum-processor-cum-amplifier behind my ears to the
tiny tubing that sends the sounds down into each of my ear canals. My
hearing hasn't become perfect overnight, but I am hearing an awful
lot more, and hearing it more clearly. Sounds that were dull are
sharp. Running water in a sink can sound positively cacophonous.
I already feel much more confident in social situations. I'm
relishing attending a friend's book launch tomorrow. Usually such
gatherings involve missing much of the chatter or having to ask
someone to repeat something; or, worst of all, leaning so close to
someone in order to hear them properly that they think you're some
sort of stalker. It's great not having to keep saying: 'Sorry, I
missed that - I'm a bit hard of hearing. Could you repeat that?'
The likeliest reason I'm a bit deaf is the first love of my life:
music. Between 1979 and 1985 I drummed in bands, and regularly went
to gigs and clubs until the early Nineties. The three audiologists I
have seen all described how they are now seeing DJs, musicians,
factory workers, road diggers, and people who shoot - and now have
hearing loss well before their time. Now that people spend more time
in louder bars, at all-night clubbing, with MP3 players or at music
festivals, more of them are hearing more loud music more often and
for longer than ever before.
Noise-related hearing damage is not new, but the Sixties brought the
creation of deliberately loud music as entertainment. From the Who to
Deep Purple, through to Motörhead and more recent bands such as My
Bloody Valentine and Mogwai, to many who play and appreciate music,
loud is good and louder is better still.
Our inner ear hair cells pick up the mechanical energy of sound,
convert it into electrical signals and transmit it to the brain. When
we're born, each of us has about 30,000 such cells, and this number
decreases slowly after the age of 25. But prolonged exposure to noise
makes cells less sensitive. And once they're gone, they don't come back.
A survey in 2006 by Deafness Research UK and Specsavers concluded
that 'today's youth are at risk of going deaf up to 30 years earlier
than their parents because they are listening to MP3 players too
loudly and too often'. They blamed the fact that 'more than 75 per
cent of people own a personal music player and sophisticated sound
systems in their car and homes, which allow them to blast out music
day and night. We also spend more time in clubs where the noise is so
loud we can barely hear the person opposite and few people,
particularly in the 16- to 34-year-old age group, are aware of the
damaging effect all this can have on their hearing.'
Neil Cameron, 44, has been a musician for 22 years. He has had
tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, for several years. Recently, after
playing double bass almost every night for several weeks with an
orchestra, and standing next to some loud trumpet playing, it
suddenly worsened. Last month he began wearing earplugs to prevent
any further damage. ' I was holding my hands over my ears during
performances and rehearsals when I could, when I wasn't playing, to
block out the noise. Now I don't have to do that.'
As a musician he needs to do all he can to protect his hearing, and
his livelihood. The earplugs, though, won't lessen or reverse his
tinnitus. 'It can keep me awake at night, sometimes for hours. It's
irritating. I hear anything from one ringing sound to three or four
at the same time, all of different pitches,' he says. 'After that run
of shows I noticed that certain high-pitched sounds, like trumpets,
oboes or xylophones, had started to distort, as if I was listening
through a bad set of speakers.' Cameron has been helped by the
Musicians Union, which points out that either sustained exposure to
excessive noise levels, or just a short burst of loud noise, can
damage those vital inner ear hair cells.
DJ Miss Behavin recalls how one club-goer was rendered totally deaf
when someone let off an air siren in his ear. Pete Townshend, the
guitarist with the Who, has blamed studio headphones for his hearing
loss, but also pinpointed the band's appearance on an American TV
show in the late Sixties, when drummer Keith Moon unexpectedly set
off a small explosion just beside him, as the start of his problems.
Sting, Phil Collins and Neil Young have also discussed their hearing
loss. Artists such as Moby and Radiohead wear earplugs on stage.
The Health and Safety Executive warns that hearing can be damaged
irreversibly by exposure to any noise above the recommended 80
decibel limit, and especially if it's anything over 105dB for more
than 15 minutes. But clubs, gigs and festivals often top 110
decibels. When the RNID monitored a Justin Timberlake show in
London's Docklands last year they recorded a high of 121 decibels.
Embarrassment, denial of the problem, the stigma around hearing loss
and NHS waiting lists all lead people with problems to cover up or
fail to seek help. The average length of time someone with hearing
loss waits before seeking advice is 15 years. That's an awful lot of