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Hearing Loss: Good News for Baby Boomers

A recent study has revealed the prevalence of hearing loss among baby boomers may not be as high as expected. However it is estimated by 2030 nearly 50 million baby boomers will acquire hearing loss.

Despite all those warnings and predictions of a generation of hearing-impaired Baby Boomers, we seem to have come through the first full-generation of head-banging heavy metal in decent enough shape according to a recently released study of 5,275 adults born between 1902 (when wax covered tubes were the music media of the day) to 1962 (and the advent of headphones for home use.)

The study, conducted at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine, showed that Baby Boomers are still hearing well – healthy hearing – longer than their parents did. Hmmm, maybe those big bands of the 30s and 40s did more damage than Metallica!

“Generally, people think that our world is getting noisier and nosier, but we found that the prevalence of hearing loss is decreasing,” reports lead researcher, Dr. Welhai Zhan. “These results suggest that hearing loss is not a normal part of aging and there are things that we can do to delay hearing loss.”

Translation: if Baby Boomers take steps to protect the hearing they have left, they can prevent further hearing loss. This is a major shift in thinking among the hearing health community – one that has an impact on everything we do, from work to play to covering our ears when we’re exposed to loud noise. Yep, it’s as simple as that.

Surprising Results (Or Are They)

The University of Wisconsin study revealed some pretty surprising results, but by applying a little common sense, well, the results might not be as surprising as we first think. Check this out.

According to this widely-read study, hearing impairment was 31% lower in baby boomers across all age groups. An example, taken from the study, shows that individuals born between 1944 and 1949 – the Woodstock Generation - experience hearing loss in 36.4% of all individuals.

Their fathers, born between 1930 and 1935, showed hearing loss in 58.1% of test subjects. So does this mean things are getting better? Well, yes. It also means that people today don’t take healthy hearing for granted the way people did back when FDR was working the country out of the Great Depression. Good news, certainly.

The Senior Population

The results showing increased hearing loss among the mothers and fathers of today’s Baby Boomers comes from long-term research called the Epidemiology of Hearing Loss Study, which began tracking hearing loss among volunteers starting back in 1993, delivering years of empirical evidence to support the figures of the U. of Wisconsin study.

In 2005, University of Wisconsin researchers undertook another study called the Beaver Dam Offspring Study to compare both rates and extent of hearing loss among the children of the original study group formed in 1993. In other words, researchers turned their attention to the “the kids”” of the original study – men and women in their 50s and 60s. You know, the ones who made rock’n’roll all the rage – from Elvis Presley to Elvis Costello and beyond.

This is the gang that frequented concerts all through the 70’s and 80s when loud, face-melting music from Judas Priest, Whitesnake and Poison had heads bobbing in mosh pits across the country.

Both the original study and the Beaver Dam project are funded by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), an organization that grows more interesting to the general population with each passing year. (That’s you.)

What Does The Evidence Reveal?

Hearing Loss in Baby Boomers
Being a baby boomer does not necessarily equal hearing loss

"These two long-term population studies provide important evidence that age-related hearing loss is not inevitable," said Dr. Wen Chen, of the NIA Division of Neuroscience. "These encouraging findings should spark future research to help us better understand the factors that favor preservation of hearing function, and that will allow development of strategies to prevent hearing loss and the associated functional declines in older adults."

Extrapolating real-world numbers from this data is pretty straightforward. The University of Wisconsin study shows that “…if baby boomers lost their hearing at the same rate as their parents did, about 65.5 million Americans would be hearing-impaired by 2030; this new study suggests the number is likely to be closer to 50.9 million.”

Pretty good, huh? Well, yes and no. You see, if more than 50 million people will experience hearing loss by 2030 we’re going to still have a lot of folks saying “What’d ya say?” an awful lot. So, while the news is good, it’s also relative. The fact is, we still have a problem with hearing loss in this country.

Today, the estimates on the number of Americans living with hearing loss vary: Better Hearing Institute (BHI) estimated in 2004 that 31.5 million Americans report hearing difficulty while the National Institute on Communication and Deafness Disorders (NIDCD) reports 36 million Americans experience some degree of hearing loss. No matter which figure is most accurate, despite the good news revealed by the University of Wisconsin research team, we’re still facing a growing problem.

Luckily hearing loss is a problem with a simple solution – an increased awareness of the importance of hearing to the quality of life, taking steps to protect the hearing we long-timers still have left and the importance of treating hearing loss.

It’s Not About Transistor Radios (Remember Them) or Boom Boxes

"Contrary to what our parents thought, we didn't lose our hearing from listening to transistor radios in the '60s, boom boxes in the '80s or iPods in the last decade," says Dr. Karen Cruickshanks, UW School of Medicine and Public Health professor of population health sciences and ophthalmology and visual sciences.

One reason, Cruickshanks says, is that hearing loss from one-time exposures, such as music at a loud concert, tends to be temporary.

"Evidence suggests that short-term exposure leads to temporary hearing loss," she says, "but it's the day-to-day exposure that leads to more permanent hearing loss." So, all you Baby Boomers, how come we hear better than our parents did?

Dr. Cruickshanks points to a number of factors.

  • stricter rules about workplace noise (thanks to OSHA sound level standards) 
  • fewer workers in loud workplaces like factories and mines 
  • reduced smoking among younger generations has had a positive impact on hearing health 
  • ear infections, which used to cause permanent hearing loss, can now be treated with anti-biotics so there’s less hearing loss caused by disease 
  • Dr, Cruickshanks explained, “Better health care and the widespread use of antibiotics may also be part of the explanation.”

What Can You Do Today To Hear Well Tomorrow?

If hearing loss were genetically determined, you wouldn't see this loss over a generation," Cruickshanks says. "It's exciting to know that there are things we can do to prevent or delay hearing loss."

So what can you do today to hold on to the hearing you still have?Here are just a few suggestions: 

  • Have your hearing evaluated by a hearing professional to establish a baseline for comparison in the years ahead. This evaluation may also reveal hearing loss that can be addressed by lifestyle changes or through the use of today’s high-tech hearing aids that deliver improved sound quality, wearing comfort and automated convenience thanks to digital technology.
  • Quit smoking. Studies show that the toxins in cigarette smoke, in fact, do damage the hearing mechanism nature provides us. 
  • Eat foods high in anti-oxidants and folates – foods like broccoli, green leafy vegetables, blueberries and other “good-for-you-foods.” These nutrient-rich foods fend off free radicals – naturally-occurring molecules in the body that are caused by everything from a Green Day concert to a cut to just plain old stress from an overly-hectic lifestyle. In fact a recent study demonstrated eating a diet rich in folates, hearing loss may be prevented by up to 20 percent.
  • Wear ear protection when you know you’re going to be exposed to loud noise. Wearing a pair of low-cost foam ear plugs while you’re mowing that beautiful lawn each Saturday will provide the protection your ears need to hear better longer. 
  • Wear hearing aids. Buy them in pairs so you don’t strain the un-aided ear. Today’s hearing aids are discrete, and powerful so you get the most from your natural hearing. Oh, today’s hearing aids are also lightweight so wearing comfort is no longer an issue. In fact, lots of wearers report that they forget they’re wearing hearing aids, and more than one hearing aid practitioner reports cases of people who forget to remove their hearing aids before doing a few laps in the condo pool. Oops.
  • Go unplugged. Avoid and/or limit exposure to loud noise. You have the potential to do serious damage to your hearing so take out those earbuds every now and then and give your ears a break. They will thank you.
  • Consider purchasing noise-cancelling headphones. These headphones block out background noise surrounding you. Studies have shown persons wearing these types of headphones are less likely to turn the volume up to damaging levels.
  • Wear ear protection in any loud workplace or during loud recreational activities. Not only is it the law for the workplace, it’s just plain smart. 
  • If (or when) you DO notice a loss of hearing, see a specialist ASAP. The longer you wait the more difficult the problem is to treat. 
  • Read the labels on medications, or talk to your family physician about the side effects of certain drugs. Some medications are ototoxic to your hearing, often when mixed with other medications.
  • There are other things you can do: roll up the windows when riding in a convertible, cover your ears during the 4th of July fireworks, the list goes on and on.

Now here’s the bottom line – the take-away – from the University of Wisconsin study: By taking a pro-active approach to protecting your hearing today, you’ll hear better longer.

Maybe our parents just weren’t aware of the dangers of hearing loss, or even the cause of hearing loss, and that’s why this older demographic experiences a greater loss of hearing among a broader segment of the population. But now, you know, and the studies back up the common sense measures we can all take today to hear well long in to the future.

The good news, then? Hearing loss is not always predicted by genetics and hearing loss is not necessarily an automatic natural part of the aging process. That’s real good news.

Now, all you have to do is take advantage of this research and take a more pro-active approach to protecting your hearing. There are plenty of sounds you won’t want to miss in the years ahead.

Healthy hearing starts with you and your lifestyle. It also starts today!

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