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Listen to This, Boomers

The bad news: More people in their 50s are reporting hearing impairment. The good news: Hearing aids are getting better, making them easier to wear and less of a stigma.

April 20, 1998|KATHLEEN DOHENY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Production manager Paul Moen goes through two cell phone batteries a day while working on location in Pasadena on "The Other Sister," a Disney movie scheduled for release in the fall.

Then there are the in-person conversations with everyone from his assistants to the on-site cook. It adds up to a lot of talking--and listening.

The latter task is complicated by the fact that Moen has hearing loss in his left ear, brought on by a close-range shotgun blast during a pheasant-hunting trip five years ago. His high-decibel childhood probably didn't help matters, he concedes. Growing up on a Fresno ranch, he rode in private planes with his pilot dad, drove tractors, played drums in a band and worked at a gravel plant.

On the hunting trip, he had put in earplugs but removed them shortly before the mishap. The next morning, his right ear buried in the pillow, "I couldn't hear the beep, beep of the alarm," he recalls. Soon after, "I found myself not able to follow conversations in a restaurant."

For several years, Moen, 46, coped the best he could. Then, last summer, he got a hearing aid. He doesn't yet wear it all the time but says he is going to try. "I do understand conversations better."

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The incidence of hearing loss among members of the baby boomer generation, people Moen's age, is increasing.

Last year, California researchers reported that hearing loss among subjects 50 and older in the Alameda County Study, a long-term investigation of health and mortality, has nearly

doubled in the past 30 years and is occurring at younger ages.

In the study, published last year in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers Margaret Wallhagen, an associate professor of nursing at UC San Francisco, and her colleagues assessed changes in the prevalence of hearing impairment in more than 5,000 subjects 50 and older from 1965 to 1994.

In 1965, 9.2% of respondents reported they experienced difficulty hearing. By 1994, 17% said they had hearing loss.

The same large increases in hearing loss among boomers are reported in the national health interview surveys, conducted regularly by the National Center for Health Statistics, says William Strawbridge, a senior research scientist at the California Department of Health Services' Human Population Laboratory in Berkeley and a co-author of the Alameda study.

In the 1963-65 national survey, 70 of every 1,000 people ages 45 to 64, or 7%, reported hearing loss. By 1993, 143 of every 1,000 people in that age bracket, or more than 14%, reported hearing loss.

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"It used to be people would come in for hearing aids at age 60," says Nancy Nadler, spokeswoman for the League for the Hard of Hearing, a New York-based private nonprofit organization. Now, some are fitted in their 40s or 50s.

What's to blame? While noise on the job is decreasing, thanks to stricter regulations, environmental and leisure-time noise is increasing, experts say.

"We're replacing one source of noise with another," says Dr. John W. House, president of the House Ear Institute, a research and education facility, and a physician at the House Ear Clinic, both in Los Angeles.

"Baby boomers have been exposed to loud noise, particularly from loud music, discos, rock-type music, growing up with it from a fairly young age," House says.

While permanent hearing loss in infants and young children is most often due to congenital causes or a complication of meningitis, hearing loss in those 45 and older is often the result of long-term exposure to excessive noise levels, House says.

Prolonged exposure to noise levels above 90 decibels can cause gradual hearing loss, according to the National Institutes of Health's National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. City traffic noise reaches about 80 decibels; a chain saw is about 110. Noise from rock concerts, motorcycles and small-arms fire can reach about 140 decibels. Over time, all that noise can damage the sensitive hair cells of the inner ear and the auditory nerve.

A single exposure to very loud noise can also cause hearing damage.

"About 10% of the population is sensitive to loud noises, while another 10% is resistant," House says. "The trouble is, there is no way to predict."

"I do think the environment is getting noisier," researcher Wallhagen says, but she suspects other causes as well for early hearing loss. Certain drugs, such as some diuretics and antibiotics, may play a role in hearing loss.

Whatever the causes, hearing-impaired boomers may achieve something many of their parents are still struggling with: banishing the stigma. Moen says he doesn't feel self-conscious when wearing a hearing aid. Nor, apparently, does President Clinton, who was fitted last year with two hearing aids. Sales of hearing aids rose 10.1% during the last quarter of 1997 compared with the same quarter of 1996.

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