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Video gamers may be risking hearing loss or tinnitus, study finds

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When it comes to being exposed to extremely loud sounds at concerts, researchers have long warned about the consequences for your hearing. But these risks may also come with playing video games, according to new research.

The research — which is a first-of-its-kind review of 14 studies totaling nearly 54,000 adults and children worldwide — found that when participants played video games, average sound levels often nearly exceeded or exceeded permissible sound exposure limits, the risks of which grow the more time people spend exposed to them.

The research also revealed “those who game regularly, as compared to those who do not, are more likely to experience tinnitus, measured high-frequency hearing loss, and self-perceived difficulties hearing,” said audiologist and epidemiologist Dr. Lauren Dillard, first author of the study published Tuesday in the journal BMJ Public Health, via email. “One study showed that individuals who play video games for longer times are at higher risk of developing hearing loss or tinnitus.”

Tinnitus refers to an internal sensation of a ringing, buzzing or roaring sound in one or both ears. The hearing issue affects 10% to 25% of adults.

Gaming is one of the most popular leisure activities worldwide, according to the study, and its fans often play for hours at loud volumes. That’s why the study’s authors wondered what the relationship with hearing loss and tinnitus might be — especially since many games also have loud sudden sounds such as gunshots or engines revving. Listening to video game audio through headphones, instead of the device’s speakers, is also common, putting loud volumes closer to ears. This practice is even more prevalent in environments where gamers might turn the volume up to drown out crowd noise in gaming centers.

“This study is an eye-opener, highlighting the often-ignored issue of sound-induced hearing loss among the youth, particularly in relation to gaming,” said Dr. De Wet Swanepoel, a professor in the department of speech-language pathology and audiology at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, via email. Swanepoel wasn’t involved in the study.

“According to the WHO, over 1 billion youth globally are estimated to be at risk of hearing loss due to unsafe listening habits,” added Swanepoel, also an adjunct professor in the department of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. “While the evidence is still evolving … (the study) is a critical addition to our understanding of hearing health risks in modern digital lifestyles.”

What are safe sound levels?

The way exposure to loud sounds can affect hearing is by causing fatigue to the sensory cells in the ear, said Dillard, a consultant at the World Health Organization. “This can result in temporary hearing loss or ringing in the ears,” she added. “While these sensations may resolve in a few days as the sensory cells recover, regular or prolonged exposure to noise can build up and result in permanent hearing loss over time.”

The noise exposure limits the study focused on were published by the International Telecommunication Union in collaboration with WHO, which has deemed 80 decibels — the measurement of sound intensity — over 40 hours per week as the maximum safe exposure. That sounds like city traffic you hear when driving, or gas-powered lawn mowers and leaf blowers, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Sound intensity has a “time-intensity trade-off, known as an exchange rate, for permissible levels and duration of exposure,” the authors wrote. “Therefore, permissible levels of noise exposure change drastically by sound level.”

This means the louder the sound, the shorter the time you can listen to it. For example, for every 3 decibels above the safe limit of 80 decibels for 40 hours per week, the permissible exposure time is cut by half — so if the sound level is 83 decibels, the permissible exposure time would be 20 hours per week.

For children, however, permissible levels are lower at 75 decibels for 40 hours per week. “Under this definition,” the authors added, “children can safely listen to … an 83dB sound for approximately 6.5 hours, an 86dB sound for approximately 3.25 hours, a 92dB sound for 45 minutes and a 98dB sound for only 12 minutes per week.”

A 98-decibel sound is equivalent to the noise of a motorcycle, a car horn from 16 feet (5 meters) away or an approaching subway train.

Safer ways to game

For many people, gaming can be a hobby or fun source of stress relief or community. But hearing damage is permanent, and exposure to high-intensity sounds when young could make kids more vulnerable to developing age-related hearing loss later, so the authors have urged the importance of prevention.

“When possible, monitor the amount of sound (you’re) exposed to,” Dillard said.

Some smartphones now have features that display the number of decibels coming through their speakers or earphones, said Dr. Janet Choi, an assistant professor of clinical otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine. Choi wasn’t involved in the study.

There are also apps that can measure environmental sound intensity.

If you don’t have a way to measure specific levels, “keep the game volume at a comfortable level, no higher than 60% of the maximum,” Swanepoel said. “If you’re using headphones, get a pair that fits well and blocks out background noise, so you won’t be tempted to crank it up.”

Don’t forget to take breaks to let your ears rest, experts said.

Also make sure that you pay attention to changes in your hearing. “Key warning signs of hearing loss include experiencing tinnitus, difficulties hearing high-pitched sounds or difficulties following conversations,” Dillard said.

If you’re experiencing symptoms, contact your doctor or an audiologist, experts said.

If you don’t have access to a hearing professional, there are “validated apps, such as hearWHO, that can help you to check and monitor your hearing,” Dillard added.

Adopting safe listening habits early on is crucial, Swanepoel said.

“By doing so, (you’ll) be able to enjoy all the wonderful sounds life has to offer for many years to come,” he added. “It’s not just about preventing loss; it’s about preserving the richness of sound in our everyday lives.”

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