Apple introduced the ability to track noise level exposure on the Apple Watch back in 2019. The company too launched three clinical research studies next to that function, including one to examine hearing health. Now, just over a year later, Apple is sharing some preliminary results in time for World Hearing Day.
For the Apple Hearing Study, Apple partnered with the University of Michigan to look at how daily Sound exposure can affect hearing over time. In a briefing, Dr. Rick Neitzel of the University of Michigan noted that “thousands of” study participants volunteered their data and in addition to regular questionnaires, participated in regular hearing tests. The study also looked at noise exposure from headphones and was not necessarily limited to data collected from the Apple Watch. For example, headphone exposure data can also be collected from iPhone and iPad. That said, the researchers were able to obtain more detailed data from watch users, including environmental noise, heart rate, heart rate variation and exercise.
According to Neitzel, a exciting takeaway from the early data is the fifth the participants experienced some kind of hearing loss, in accordance with the guidelines of the World Health Organization, and that there appears to be a link between chronic environmental noise and cardiovascular disease. In addition, almost 50% of the participants currently work or have previously worked, in a high workplace. Another surprising treat was that despite locking in covid-19, many participants still had high environmental noise exposure (though overall noise exposure was cut almost in half). Approximately 10% of the participants had also been professionally diagnosed with hearing loss, but despite this diagnosis, 75% of them did not use assistive devices such as hearing aids or cochlear implants. A further 10% had an average exposure to headphones that exceeded WHO limits, and 20%% had daily exposure above daily WHO limits. Another sober finding was that 25% regularly experienced a ringing in the ears that could be tinnitus a couple of times a week, and that almost 50% had not had their hearing tested by a professional for at least ten years.
The findings are actually quite impressive when you consider the scale and the detailed data which laptops can report with only passive healthsurveillance. ONE major problem that may arise with health research is that the findings may come from a limited sample that may not be an indication of the general population or have an inherent bias (ie not enough BIPOC topics, etc.). With wearables, you can actually conduct continuous research with a much, much larger section of the population. The Apple Heart Studyfor example, managed to gain 400,000 participants in eight months, making it the largest virtual study to date.
On that front, Neitzel said that he believes that the participants in Apple Hearing Study is generally accurate representative of the general population. He also noted that access to location data, for example, can help researchers look for more esoteric patterns. For example, researchers can now ask questions such as: “Are hearing loss worse in an area with more air pollution?”
The Apple Hearing Study is still ongoing, and Neitzel noted there is still more to learn. In particular, Neitzel pointed out to understand how typical noise exposure and listening patterns for headphones can affect future hearing health, including tinnitus, as well as to explore the relationship between hearing and cardiovascular health. In the meantime, though, it’s probably a good idea if we all just lowered the volume on our headphones.