10/19/2015 02:43 pm ET Updated Oct 19, 2016

Turn Down the Music! Noise-Induced Hearing Loss

Refat Mamutov via Getty Images

Maria is a 10-year-old elementary school student who comes home with ringing in her ears -- a sign of hearing loss -- after attending a program in her school auditorium. There are "Marias" in every school in the U.S. Twenty percent of American kids will suffer permanent hearing loss due to noise by the age of nineteen.

John, age 12, loves music and plays guitar in his Middle School band. Forty-five percent of young people who participate in a musical group -- band, orchestra or even choir -- will suffer permanent hearing loss from noise by the age of twenty-five.

Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is an epidemic in the U.S. The American Academy of Audiology (AAA) reports that by second grade almost three times as many children have hearing loss today as compared to just a decade ago, increasing to four times as many by eighth grade. Between 2000 and 2015, the number of Americans with hearing loss has doubled, currently approaching fifty million people.

Every single one of us is at risk for NIHL. We are all exposed to loud noise at restaurants, the movies, shopping malls, gyms, our jobs, and at weddings or other celebrations that include music.

Do you (or your children) listen to iPods or use personal stereo headphones? Do you attend athletic events like basketball or football games? Even at outside arenas, decibel levels often register 115 dBA or higher; at this level, permanent hearing loss can begin in just minutes. The risk can be even greater at rock or electronic music concerts.

Millions of Americans suffer from hearing loss and are not aware of it. Each of us has approximately 18,000 tiny hair cells in our inner ears that transmit sound via the auditory nerve to our brains. When exposed to dangerously loud sound, some of these hair cells become damaged and die. This is usually pain-free and often happens so gradually that we are not aware of our hearing loss. Then one day, we wake up and find that we have severely and permanently damaged our ability to hear.

NIHL has serious consequences which include social isolation, increased stress and depression, reduced job performance and lower income, increased risk of injury, and even death. NIHL is frequently accompanied by tinnitus, a ringing or whooshing sound that can stay with you for the rest of your life. Dr. Frank Lin of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine reported a correlation between hearing loss and dementia (2012): mild hearing loss correlated with double the risk, moderate loss with triple the risk, severe hearing loss with five times the risk. And the economic impact is enormous, with lifetime costs estimated to be up to $1 million per person.

Once you lose your hearing, you can never get it back. There is no cure for NIHL and no doctor can fix it. Hearing aids may help to raise the volume of sound, but they don't come close to replacing normal hearing.

While NIHL is both progressive and permanent, the good news is that it is preventable. Several simple changes in our behavior can make a world of difference. Let's turn down the volume on our headphones. Let's walk away from areas with loud noise. And, if we cannot do either of these, let's wear hearing protection when we are exposed to loud sound. For example, music students need to wear ear plugs during rehearsals and performances.

Together, let's raise our voices and object when our schools, our restaurants, our recreational venues or our jobs expose us to dangerous decibel levels. Any sound over 85 decibels can cause permanent hearing damage depending on how long you are exposed.

Using protective ear plugs should become just as routine as wearing seat belts, eye glasses, or sunscreen. Ear plugs are available at all price levels -- from 20 cents a disposable pair at local pharmacies to less than $20 online for re-usable plugs with special filters that allow you to hear clearly but at safer decibel levels. Carry a pair with you so you always have protection at your fingertips.

October is National Protect Your Hearing Month. For your own well-being and the health of the next generation of Americans, it is time for all of us to pay attention and take the simple but necessary steps to prevent the current epidemic of hearing loss.

Hearing is a precious gift: protect yours!

Adele Sandberg, Founder, Ear Peace: Save Your Hearing Foundation. For more information or to get involved, visit or like Ear Peace Foundation on Facebook.