Baby Boomers Listen Up
Ear Today, Gone Tomorrow
Sept. 13, 2001 -- Eric Snider, a music critic 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, 45, 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
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,
CD players, leaf blowers, and other environmental noises 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 demonstrated by one of the more
famous boomers, former President Bill Clinton, who was fitted with hearing aids
while in office.
Statistics support doctors' observations that people are
suffering from hearing loss at younger ages. 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.