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Musician chooses 'real' career so that others may hear

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Audiologist, guitarist Matthew Bell shares tips to protect your hearing

PAMPLIN MEDIA PHOTO: CHRIS OERTELL - Dr. Matthew Bell is a professor of audiology at Pacific University's Hillsboro campus. A musician as well, Bell knows well the damage that can be done to hearing from years of loud music.

When Matthew Bell first learned to play guitar at 16, he hoped it would lead to a career. Instead, it led to two.

You can still find Bell, a Sherwood resident, jamming on his guitar on many evenings and weekends as a member of Raindriver. But his day job is as a professor of audiology at Pacific University's Hillsboro campus, which he attributes to his love of music and concern for musicians' ears.

Born and raised in Bountiful, Utah, Bell played in various "garage bands" and ultimately, earned a bachelor of music degree from Utah State University, with a focus on jazz guitar.

After he graduated, Bell worked the bar/wedding/banquet scene before going to work on Caribbean cruise ships.

"Ultimately, I got burned out and decided I needed a 'real' career," Bell said. "So after researching several health professions, I went back to school for audiology because of the sound connection."

Bell, who received his audiology degree at the University of Washington in 2008, says sound and hearing were of particular interest because of his personal experience dealing with tinnitus, or "ringing in the ears," which he attributes to his exposure to loud music.

From his early days of strumming "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain" to mastering "Living After Midnight" by Judas Priest, Bell's exposure to music — particularly loud music — helped him become the audiologist he is today.

When you play in your band, do you find yourself ultra-aware of your own hearing and that of the audience members?

Because I have already damaged my hearing, I use special hearing protection so as not to exacerbate the damage already done. I do also think about the audience and fellow band-members, because we are loud. I have taken to bringing earplugs for people to use if they wish.

Is hearing loss a relatively new concern for society?

Hearing loss from noise has been a problem for every generation going way back to bell ringers and blacksmiths. And there are many, many causes of hearing loss that are the result of genetics and medical conditions.

Have you seen a change from generation to generation in hearing loss?

There is some evidence that noise-induced hearing loss is beginning to show up in younger people nowadays, possibly due, at least in part, to the increased accessibility of music via portable music players and smart phones.

Why does that matter?

In my youth, you had to go to the music store, select the album you wanted to buy, take it home and play it on the home stereo. You could certainly turn it up and listen over and over (as I did), but you didn't have the ability to listen all day until the portable tape decks and CD players came along. Now, you can quickly download whatever music you want and have instant access to it pretty much anywhere, which means more people may be listening for longer time periods and in situations where they have to turn up the volume to hear the music over the noise in the environment.

How do headphones affect hearing? PAMPLIN MEDIA PHOTO: CHRIS OERTELL - Dr. Matthew Bell examines an audiometer in the Student Teaching Lab at the Pacific Ear Clinic in Hillsboro.

It is my opinion that headphones get sort of a bad rap. It is not the headphones themselves that lead to the risk of hearing loss — it is how loud the listener decides to turn up the volume that determines the risk; it is listener behavior. To be sure, research shows that headphones and ear-buds can and do produce potentially damaging sound levels well above the 85 decibel "safe" level. But, in order for this to occur the user has to turn them up that loud, and then listen at that level for an extended period.

What's the best way to prevent hearing loss when attending loud outings?

Consider using appropriate hearing protection. There are many options available to meet individual needs in different situations. Also consider distance. Can you get farther away from the "offending" sound source? Remember, time is a factor. If attending an all-day music festival, you are likely at greater risk than attending a one-hour concert in the park. If you attend a loud event, give your ears a break the next day so they can recover.

When should someone be concerned about their hearing?

Get educated on the risk factors and signs of hearing loss. Are you exposed to loud sounds on a regular basis? Are you a musician? Is there a history of hearing loss in your family? Do you experience tinnitus? Are you (or someone else) noticing difficulties understanding conversations? Do you have a hard time understanding in a noisy situation like a restaurant or party? And I can't stress this enough: have your hearing evaluated by an audiologist if you have any concerns. Audiologists can diagnose your hearing loss, make necessary recommendations for further medical evaluation and treatment as needed, and work with you to develop a plan of action to maintain optimal hearing health.

Erika Vives is a journalism student at Pacific University.