Brittany Hensley: Listen Up

A roommate’s blaring music may be more than an annoyance. It can actually pose a substantial health risk.

Brittany Hensley, a doctoral candidate in the University of Florida’s audiology and speech-language pathology program, recently helped uncover findings that suggest hearing loss – particularly noise-induced hearing loss – may be much more common among college students than previously thought.

“The type of hearing loss associated with noise damage affects the higher pitched sounds first and has a gradual onset,” Hensley said.

So gradual, in fact, that many people do not even notice the change.

All 56 of the study’s student volunteers self-reported normal hearing in telephone interviews, but screening tests revealed that one in four were mistaken about being able to hear normally.

She and the research team were unpleasantly surprised to learn that 25 percent of study participants had hearing loss of 15 decibels or more at one or more test frequencies. Of these, 7 percent had losses of 25 decibels or more, which is clinically significant and diagnosable as mild hearing loss.

While such losses do not warrant the use of hearing aids, they can make it more difficult to discriminate subtle speech sounds and detect high frequency noises like birds’ songs or children’s voices.

Sadly, “once the damage occurs, the loss is permanent” said Hensley, who completed the school’s clinical doctorate program in audiology (Au.D.) in 2009.

Males who listened to portable music players fared worst of all. Hensley stopped short of singling out young men for special intervention efforts since the findings are preliminary and may not be representative of the larger population. At least a few studies, however, indicate their results are not a merely fluke.

“Some literature reports males listen to personal music players at a higher level than females,” Hensley said.

Such behavior could explain an elevated risk of hearing loss.

Hensley collaborated with Colleen Le Prell, an associate professor in the Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences at UF, and researchers outside the university on this research project. Their findings were published in a special supplement of the International Journal of Audiology.

Studies like these are vital to scientists’ understanding of noise-induced hearing loss among young adults.

Increased incidence of damage to what Hensley’s calls “such an important sense” is especially tragic given that preventative measures are simple and inexpensive.

“The best way to protect your hearing is by reducing your exposure, or amount of time, around loud sounds,” she said.

Keeping volumes low and wearing earplugs or earmuffs in noisy environments were her specific recommendations.

She also had tips for safely enjoying personal music players: Try switching out your standard earbuds for “noise canceling headphones” and taking advantage of the volume control lock-a feature found on many devices.

As she works toward the completion of her second doctorate, Hensley looks forward to a career in academia, where she can train future audiologists.

“We live in a very noisy world,” Hensley said “and young adults need to be educated on hearing, the auditory system, and how to protect this vulnerable system.”

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