After years of loud music, are baby boomers losing hearing?
Guitarist Randy Pepper, 50, plays some licks recently at his shop The Guitar Attic in Holly Hill. Pepper has paid a price for his love of rock music: his hearing has declined and he suffers from tinnitus. (N-J | Peter Bauer)
But the 50-year-old musician has paid a price for his love of rock. His hearing has gradually declined, and he has a permanent ringing in his ears after a particularly loud gig with his band three years ago in DeLand.
"I took my ears over the limit," the shoulder-length, black- and blond-haired guitarist admitted from behind the counter of his shop in Holly Hill.
Pepper is just one of the estimated 77 million baby boomers -- born between 1946 and 1964 -- who came of age during the rock 'n' roll eras of the 1960s and '70s. But baby boomers aren't the only ones who likely cranked up the volume. Twenty-six million Americans between the ages of 20 and 69 have some degree of hearing loss due to exposure to loud noises such as music or those found on the job, according to the National Institute and Deafness and Communication Disorders.
Pepper went to a hearing specialist who diagnosed him with tinnitus, a constant ringing in the ears caused by exposure to extremely loud noise. There are few treatment options for his condition, Pepper said. In order to fall asleep at night, he keeps the TV on to drown out the ringing. But despite his hearing loss, Pepper isn't ready for hearing aids yet, he said. He also can't bring himself to wear earplugs when he performs because he said it prevents him from fully hearing his music.
"If it progresses to a point where I can't hear at all, then I'll get hearing aids," he said.
The Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration says habitual exposure to noise above 85 decibels causes gradual hearing loss in a significant number of individuals. Louder noises will accelerate the damage. A person may risk permanent damage to their hearing if they experience noise levels of 140 decibels or higher, even from short-term exposure and with hearing protection. According to the American Hearing Research Foundation, rock concerts can exceed 120 decibels, motorcycles can reach 100 decibels and a jet engine can hit 140.
"If you went to a rock concert and walked away with ringing in your ears, you did permanent damage to your ears," said Larry Smith, owner of the Advance Hearing Center of Florida's Ormond Beach and Palm Coast branches. "The ringing may subside but later in life you will have problems with your ears."
While technological improvements have made hearing aids more discreet and better at picking up sound, for boomers, wearing them often evokes images of old age. Smith said that's one of the most common reasons that people delay getting a hearing test.
"There is a very unfortunate stigma that a hearing aid makes you an old person," Smith said.
"But let me tell you what makes you old: Walking around saying: 'huh, what?' "
Even if someone isn't ready for a hearing aid, a hearing test showing even the slightest impairment can help the patient take steps to remedy the condition, said Dr. Michael Branch, an ears, nose and throat specialist with Florida Hospital Fish Memorial in Orange City.
Branch experiences the same symptoms that many of his patients suffer from. The 58-year-old doctor has been a musician since he was a teenager, and exposure to loud concerts resulted in him not being able to hear higher frequencies in one ear.
Early symptoms of hearing loss include the feeling of one's ears being clogged or stopped up, Branch said. The first thing people can do is accept the fact that they are losing their hearing and get tested. The longer people wait the more inclined they are to feel disengaged and have personal relationships suffer, he said.
As to whether baby boomers will suffer increased hearing loss due to increased exposure to loud music, Branch pointed to a 2010 study by the University of Wisconsin showing that hearing impairment rates were 31 percent lower in baby boomers than their parents. The study tracked 5,275 adults born between 1902 and 1962. One reason for the lower impairment rates could be stricter OSHA regulations that have lowered noise levels in the workplace.
But more studies are needed to determine whether baby boomers will have higher rates of hearing loss as they get older, Branch cautioned.
"We need more time to see how things will play out," he said. "The number of people experiencing hearing loss is going to be quite high over the next 10 years."
It's never too late, however, to take steps to prevent hearing loss, Branch said. He recommends wearing earplugs at concerts and turning the volume down when using headphones.
"Once your hearing is gone, it's gone," he said. "There is no way to really recover it."
Signs you might need your hearing tested:
You frequently ask others to repeat themselves.
- You have a hard time understanding softer voices such as women or children.
- Family members complain the volume is too loud when you watch TV or listen to music.
- You have trouble hearing on the phone.
- Family members are often annoyed when you misunderstand what they say.
Original Article from News Journal