A: You've hit on what hearing experts now regard as a serious and growing problem among young (and not so young) people. They fear that listening to music most of the day is taking a toll on the hearing of a whole generation. But this is nothing new. The incidence of noise-induced hearing loss has been increasing since the first Walkmans were introduced years ago. Perhaps because of all the loud rock music they've listened to, there are now 10 million baby boomers with hearing loss, a million more than the number of people over the age of 65 with hearing loss.
Noise-induced hearing loss can stem from prolonged exposure to loud music or even a one-time exposure to a loud noise - a gunshot, firecracker, the sound of power tools or the loud motors of snowmobiles or motorcycles.
According to Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers (H.E.A.R.), a non-profit organization to promote hearing protection among musicians and young music fans, the risk of hearing damage from music depends on how loud the music is, how long you are exposed to it, and your own personal hearing ability and history (previous exposure, any past hearing loss, and genetic predisposition to hearing loss). The first signs of hearing damage from exposure to music (or other sounds) include a feeling of fullness in the ears, a temporary or permanent ringing in the ears and loss of the ability to hear speech sounds clearly.
Other warning signs: the need to turn up the volume on the TV or radio or better hearing on the telephone with one ear than with the other.
The only way to protect against noise-induced hearing loss is to wear earplugs when you know you're going to be exposed to loud noises and to give those iPods a rest.
Andrew Weil, M.D.