Have an iPhone? U-M, Apple partner on hearing study and want you to participate

Users can participate via the Apple Research app

Apple iPhone and AirPods.
Apple iPhone and AirPods. (Credit: Pixabay)

ANN ARBOR – It’s one of the cooler features on Apple Watch: the Noise App that tells you the decibel level of your environment.

Now, researchers at the University of Michigan and Apple are teaming up on a study on noise exposure in daily life and its impact on hearing, cardiovascular health and stress levels.

Traditionally, noise exposure was associated with certain occupations: airplanes taking off at airports, loud construction sites and machines in factories. But researchers are learning that recreational activities like concerts and even going to the movies can carry the risk of hearing loss.

University of Michigan researcher Rick Neitzel, who partnered with Apple to measure sound exposure levels through a person’s Apple Watch and iPhone, said that measuring noise exposure has been primarily ignored in studies -- until now.

“Historically, we’ve had to put noise measurement devices on people,” Neitzel, an associate professor of environmental health sciences at the U-M School of Public Health, said in a statement. “We would have them wear a noise dosimeter for somewhere between a day and a week, and the dosimeter would tell us all how much environmental sound exposure they got from their surroundings. It was a hassle because people had to wear something extra, they only wore the dosimeter for a short period, and the measurement didn’t include exposure that they got through their headphones.

“For the very first time, at an individual level, we’ll have a holistic sense of people’s noise exposures. We’ll start to be able to evaluate the link between music and hearing loss, and how long-term sound exposure can impact stress levels and cardiovascular health. We know that noisy work, for example, is directly linked to hearing loss, but we don’t know much about music or other noisy hobbies.”

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The study has four objectives:

  • To understand typical headphone listening patterns and sound exposures, and their relationship to current and future hearing health.
  • For Apple Watch users, to understand typical environmental sound exposures, and their relationship to current and future hearing health.
  • To study how participants interact with data about their own headphone listening patterns and environmental sound exposures.
  • For Apple Watch users, to understand the relationship between environmental sound exposures and cardiovascular health.

Users can download the Apple Research app to enroll in the Apple Hearing Study. Other studies available to participate in are the Heart and Movement study and the Apple Women’s Health Study.

“The big step forward here is now we’re not having someone wear something extra to get a measurement over a short period of time,” Neitzel said in a statement. “We’ll have much longer measures of exposure through a device many people are already using—their iPhone.

“And if the participants have an Apple Watch in addition to their iPhone we can get a cumulative measure of exposure—all the environmental sound, plus their music. That’s never been done before and is a game-changer from a scientific perspective.”

While the Apple Watch bolsters the study by measuring total sound exposure, it is not required for the study.

Any headphones can be used in the study to measure sound exposure levels. Participants will also be asked to complete a speech listening test and a pure-tone hearing test task within the Apple Research App. Apple Airpods or EarPods are required for the tone hearing tests, which come with the purchase of iPhones.

Under Neitzel’s direction, researchers at the U-M School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences will analyze the data.

The study has also partnered with the World Health Organization’s Make Listening Safe initiative, which aims to reduce hearing loss by developing new policies with regard to hearing health.

“A lot of Americans think of noise as maybe an occupational hazard," Neitzel said in a statement. "And as an industrial hygienist, that’s been my focus historically. But what most of us fail to realize is that we can potentially get a lot of noise elsewhere in our lives.

“Think about going to concerts or shows or clubs, or the noisy restaurant where you have dinner. Any one of these activities alone might not be sufficient to harm your health, but if you’re doing a lot of these activities everyday of your life eventually that may catch up with you and result in a hearing loss or something worse.”

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