Baby Boomers Listen Up

Last Editorial Review: 6/29/2005

After years of loud rock, boomers are battling hearing loss.

By John Cutter
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson

Eric Snider, music editor for The Weekly Planet in Tampa, Fla., says people often joke when they see him wearing foam earplugs at rock concerts. How good can the concert be if the critic is muffling the sounds?

But Snider, 50, is simply taking precautions against the often relentless noise level. "Someday," he says, "I hope to be able to hear what my grandchildren are saying." Snider has worn earplugs for a long time, but lately he has noticed more people, especially his colleagues, doing the same.

When Hearing Goes

Many others exposed to high-decibel surroundings, however, are not as cautious as Snider -- and may regret it. Years of exposure to loud concerts, cranked-up stereos, personal CD players, leaf blowers, and other environmental noise are a big part of the reason doctors are now seeing more middle-aged people with hearing loss. It used to be that people aged 65 and older were the most likely to need hearing aids, but now hearing loss is a boomer phenomenon -- as former President Bill Clinton demonstrated when he was fitted with hearing aids a few years ago.

Statistics support doctors' observations that people are suffering from hearing loss at younger ages. About 28 million Americans have hearing loss and, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), it occurs among adults of all ages. Fourteen percent of adults between 45 and 64 have hearing loss. Moreover, the percentage has grown as baby boomers have aged. Between 1971 and 1990, the number of people between the ages of 46 and 64 with hearing loss increased 26%, and the number between the ages of 18 and 44 increased 17%, according to the National Health Interview Survey.

The Root of the Loss

Exposure to loud noises can damage hearing by harming sensitive hair cells in the ear, says James F. Battey Jr., MD, PhD, director of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. These hair cells move as sound waves travel through the ear structures, and the movement is converted to nerve impulses that are interpreted by the brain as sound.

A single loud noise, such as a gunshot blast, can do permanent damage to these structures. But Battey says years of high-decibel exposure are more often to blame for hearing loss in middle age.

A Rocker's Story

That was true for Kathy Peck. As guitarist for a punk band in the 1970s and 1980s, she regularly spent time on stage close to loudspeakers. By the mid-1980s, "I realized I couldn't hear clearly what people were saying," Peck says.

Her hearing loss prompted Peck and a friend, Flash Gordon, MD (a physician, not the comic strip character) to establish HEAR (Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers). The organization seeks to inform musicians and fans about the dangers of loud music and promotes the use of earplugs at shows.

At the organization's clinic in San Francisco, Peck notices more and more middle-aged adults with hearing problems coming in for help. And she is reaching out to educate the boomers' children about the dangers of loud recorded music at dance events, which are often more popular with today's youth than live concerts.

What Can Be Done?

Even if there is already hearing loss, protecting the ears can minimize further injury. Earplugs, sold in most drugstores, should be worn when people are around loud power tools or attending loud concerts. Larger earphone-like devices can help for especially loud tools, like leaf blowers, Battey says.

When hearing loss is already severe, a hearing aid may be required. Today's hearing aids are nothing like their predecessors. The new hearing aids are more powerful and much smaller. The most significant recent development is the availability of digital technology for people with hearing loss.

"The first digital hearing aid was available in the late 1980s," Pamela Mason, MEd, told WebMD. Mason is director of the ASHA's Audiology Practice, Policy & Consultation Unit. "It was a large device that was fitted behind the ear, with a hard wire that went to a large power supply and speech processor worn on the waistband."

But when the public turned a deaf ear to these bulky devices, the manufacturers went back to the drawing boards. "Today, all of the digital components fit into a hearing aid that can be placed into the ear canal and is virtually invisible," Mason said.

Unlike conventional analog hearing aids, the fully digital ones can be tailored to reduce background noise, improve clarity of speech and help control unwanted loudness.

The cost of these digital devices ranges from about $1,400 to more than $3,000 per ear.

The newer hearing aids are also smaller. Many other hearing aids now fit completely in the ear canal, nearly invisible to other people. And that, designers and ear specialists hope, may convince hard-of-hearing boomers to do something about their problem -- without broadcasting their accumulation of birthdays.

Originally published April 24, 2000.

Medically updated December, 2004.

John A. Cutter is a freelance writer specializing in aging, health, and retirement issues. He writes a syndicated column for Copley News Service and has also written for The New York Times and The St. Petersburg Times.

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