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Hearing loss across the generations

Contributed by , staff writer for Healthy Hearing

They call it the generation gap and since long before The Beatles debuted on the Ed Sullivan Show, each age group has looked at the world differently than the one before them.

Yet, when it comes to hearing loss, the generations are more alike than they might realize. Genetic reasons aside, each age group experiences hearing loss due to prolonged exposure to noise, the drugs they take, the lifestyle they choose to lead, and the age of their auditory system. The reasons why these types of hearing loss occur, on the other hand, are often a result of world events and the environmental influences they produce.

The Greatest Generation: 1901-1945

They are our grandparents and great grandparents. They grew up in the Great Depression, then went on to fight in World War II. Tom Brokaw called them The Greatest Generation, and wrote a book by the same title, because they were frugal, moral and did things simply because it was the right thing to do.

Hearing loss does not discriminate based on 
age, it impacts people across all generations. 

Noise induced hearing loss        

Because they either fought in WWII or were instrumental in keeping the home fires burning while their soldiers were away, their noise-induced hearing loss was most likely impacted by the persistent exposure to loud noise they encountered on the battle front or at home in the factories.

Presbycusis

Presbycusis is age-related hearing loss and occurs gradually and progressively, most typically in those 65 years of age and older. The youngest of this generation would be almost 70 years old today. Even if they led a very sheltered life during WWII and weren't subjected to battle field mortar or the loud clang of factory machinery, their hearing is probably impaired by old age.

"The Greatest" hearing aid technology

Although the first electronic hearing aid made its entrance in the 1870s after the invention of the telephone and microphone, it was this generation which saw the invention of a vacuum tube hearing aid which was light enough to carry. Naval engineer Earl Hanson developed the seven pound, portable trumpet and more portable than the first electronically amplified hearing aid, created in 1913 by the Siemens company.

Baby Boomers: 1946-1964

Whether it was a spontaneous reaction to world peace, or just something "in the water," English-speaking countries (US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) experienced a strange spike in birth rates just after WWII - hence the term "Baby Boomers." The term applies to approximately 76million Americans born between 1945-64 who marked the beginning of dramatic social change.

Ototoxic drugs

For example, the hippie subculture that arose during the 1960s was known for its drug use and psychedelic rock scene. Although true hippies were often eco-friendly and vegetarian, their psychedelic drug practices - which they believed "expanded their consciousness" - weren't very hearing health friendly. LSD, mescaline and PCP usage affects the circulatory system by elevating blood pressure, which can be damaging to hearing health. Ototoxic drugs and medications can have a temporary or permanent effect on hearing health.

Noise induced hearing loss

This is the generation that witnessed the birth of Rock and Roll. Baby Boomers weren't subjected to the same type of noise-induced hearing loss of the previous generation, but their loud music definitely destroyed some inner ear hair cells. Their parents would no doubt argue that it destroyed a few brain cells, too.

Boomer Hearing aid technology

Along with the stream of social consciousness, hearing aid development was progressing, too. Transistor hearing aids were smaller, required less battery power and had less distortion than vacuum tube hearing aids. Although Boomers were too young to use transistor hearing aid technology when it was developed in 1948, we have this generation to thank for their diligence in perfecting it.

Baby Boomers grew up with Lee Majors as the Six-Million-Dollar Man and Lindsay Wagner as the Bionic Woman. As a result, today's Boomer is comfortable having knee and hip replacements, Lasik eye surgery, and wearing practically invisible digital hearing aids with Bluetooth technology that connect wirelessly to all of their favorite personal electronic devices. It seems this generation truly believed the "we can rebuild him" phrase they heard on their television every week.

Generation X: 1965-1983

This age group experienced Viet Nam, saw the emergence of MTV and mass media as well as the end of The Cold War. The internet came into prominence during this period of time -- as did video games. Gas and food prices began to rise and we began the war on terror.

Health-related hearing loss

All of this set the stage for one of the unhealthiest generations of our lifetime. Obesity, diabetes and heart disease came to the forefront. We began to understand how our overall health affects that of our hearing health and started making strides toward improving both.

Tinnitus

Viet Nam veterans returned home with a variety of physical and psychological disabilities, one of which is a type of hearing loss commonly caused by prolonged exposure to loud noise known as tinnitus. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, tinnitus is the number one service-related disability for veterans receiving compensation at the end of 2012. While the condition currently has no cure, a new clinical trial is underway to study how vagus nerve stimulation (VNS)might trigger the brain's ability to reconfigure itself.

Hearing aid technology

The six-channel hearing aid was developed in 1975 by Daniel Graupe and in 1982 at City University of New York, the first real-time all digital hearing aid was created. Since then, digital hearing technology has continued to enhance the quality of life for those with hearing loss, regardless of their age.

Generation Y: 1984-2004

Welcome to the Information Age, where the birth of social media and digital globalization became renowned. This age group is accustomed to having the world at their fingertips, so to speak, and often use ear buds to stream it directly into their ears from their personal electronic devices.

Noise-induced hearing loss

As a result, this generation may be the most vulnerable to developing noise-induced hearing loss. Parents are becoming more diligent about monitoring the volume on their children's personal electronic devices, especially when those PEDs are used with ear buds. Hearing prevention is an important topic among hearing health professionals.

Audiologists like Corry Wilcox, M.A., CCC-A, of Audiology Associates of Lancaster in Ohio, visits local schools, talks directly to kids about noise-induced hearing loss and gives them ear plugs.

"It's hard for parents to always monitor how high the volume is, so I like to talk directly to the kids," she said. "They're always surprised when I share with them what can negatively affect their hearing loss. Even a balloon popping beside their ear can permanently damage their hearing."

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