Ask a Best Doctor: Does City Living Make You Deaf?

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Are city dwellers at higher risk of hearing loss than people who live in the suburbs? My friend keeps telling me there's a hearing aid in my future.

Sirens, subways, and subwoofers — there's no shortage of noisy assaults that city dwellers must endure. But noise has to exceed about 80 decibels to damage your hearing, and that’s pretty loud, says J. Thomas Roland Jr., chairman of otolaryngology at NYU Langone Medical Center. (Imagine putting your ear next to a vacuum cleaner.) Even in a busy city, noise levels rarely get that high. And when they do — say, from a fire-engine siren — it’s usually for a short period. (By the way, it’s not the loudness of a fire-engine siren that’s so grating, Roland notes. It’s the annoying pitch — the nails-on-a-chalkboard phenomenon.)

That said, there are noise exposures to worry about. Loud MP3 players, clubs with loud music, concerts, bars with a live band, spin classes — these can all be bigger risks than ambient city noise, and doctors are seeing an increase in damage from those sources. “I went to the Dave Matthews outdoor concert on Governor’s Island, and I walked through a section near the speakers,” Roland says. “I remember thinking that the people sitting in that section were really getting hit, probably with more than 85 decibels. You don’t want to sit there, at least not without earplugs.” For music, don’t go above 70 decibels, Roland says. (Most people talk in the 50 to 60 decibel range.) “If music drowns out conversation, it’s probably loud enough to cause hearing damage with repeated exposure.” Foam earplugs can cut volume by 20 to 30 decibels. There are also smartphone apps, like Decibel Meter, that’ll tell you the decibel level of music. If you have ringing in your ears after being exposed to noise, or your ears feel plugged, you know the noise was too loud.

Bottom line: Tell your suburban friend he’s more likely to experience hearing loss from mowing his lawn without earplugs for a few summers than you are from living in New York your entire life.