For many of you between the ages of 46 and 64, your time is coming.
Time, that is, to experience what so many of your parents and grandparents came to learn firsthand: hearing difficulties caused by exposure to excess loud noise.
The baby boomer generation — Americans born between 1946 and 1960 — accounts for some 76 million people in the U.S. today, and at least 15% of boomers already have hearing loss.
This is a far cry from the previous two generations, who typically did not show symptoms of hearing loss until they were in their 70s and 80s. Indeed, when I was an audiology student at Minot State University earning my Master of Science degree, I was taught that only men in their 70s and 80s got hearing loss.
What has changed? Our world is now much, much louder.
An unprecedented century
Prior to the Industrial Revolution of the 1890s, relatively few Americans were exposed to loud noise. At the turn of the 20th century, much of our population inhabited rural areas with men working in non-mechanized agriculture and women involved in homemaking chores, which they performed by hand. There were no vacuum cleaners or food processors.
However, with unprecedented technology, mechanization, and involvement in two world wars, the U.S. population got its first dose of exposure to excessive levels of loud noise.
Still, the field of audiology — born of the technological research in sonar for the Navy in World War II — was in its infancy in the 1950s and was relying on the only set of data on hearing loss available until then, which was testing conducted at the 1939 World’s Fair in San Francisco.
But a funny thing happened. That data was proven wrong when, in the mid 1980s, women in their 60s started showing up in audiologists’ offices across the country with identical hearing loss of their male counterparts.
Who were these women, and why, for the first time in recorded history, were they suddenly experiencing hearing loss? They were, in fact, the Rosie the Riveters of World War II: young American women who, with all the men serving in the armed forces, went to work in the factories and shipyards, providing the Arsenal of Democracy with much needed war effort labor. These women built the Liberty ships, Sherman tanks, and B-17 bombers used to defeat the Axis Powers…and got themselves a hefty dose of impaired hearing in the process!
After victory in World War II, Americans got busy in the greatest economic surge in human history and had babies. Lots of babies.
And as those babies grew into young adults in the ’60s and ’70s, a flourishing American economy provided them with all sorts of loud recreational activities. From rock concerts to ski boats to hot rods to stereo systems, Americans got a steady diet of loud noise long before subsequent research showed the direct correlation between the noise and hearing loss.
Early hearing aids: low-tech = bad reputation
Parents of the boomers had lousy timing, as hearing aids back then were pretty awful. These devices only made sounds louder for the wearer. While a few people benefited from this simplistic approach to solving hearing difficulties, most did not, and hearing aids got a deserved bad reputation.
So bad, in fact, that after graduating from school, I steered my career toward diagnostics, performing testing of the hearing system for the determination of medical problems such as the location and size of brain tumors and loss of balance problems.
The digital breakthrough
Everything about hearing aids changed in the late 1990s with the breakthrough of digital hearing technology. In essence, digital hearing aids are miniature computers that dramatically increase the amount of sound processes possible (and available to the wearer) as opposed to the old linear and analog products. And digital products keep getting better, with several major advancements taking place during the last decade with the last two years seeing some terrific gains.
Today’s digital products are so advanced we don’t even call them hearing aids anymore. Instead, we prefer to call these amazing products hearing technology, as they are smaller than ever with superb sound quality. Top-of-the-line models have features that boomers need, such as directionality for enhancing sound coming from the front, while tuning down sound coming from behind, like someone might experience at a noisy restaurant or party. Also, Bluetooth capability enhances the lives of 21st century, on-the-go active Americans.
Educate yourself: Get the facts about hearing care
The myths and misperceptions associated with hearing loss and hearing aids of 30 years ago should be put to rest. The science of audiology has come a long way, as has hearing technology. No one needs to suffer all the serious communication issues associated with hearing difficulties if they would only seek help.
Get the facts! As the month of May is National Better Hearing Month, I will be providing a free luncheon seminar on hearing care on May 4 at the Chico Women’s Club. This informative seminar will answer all of your questions about hearing difficulties and technological solutions. The seminar if free, but advance reservations are required, so call my office at 1.888.893.1352…because hearing is a wonderful gift!
More baby boomers showing signs of hearing loss
- More than 55 million Americans have some degree of hearing loss — approximately 1 in 5 individuals — and this number is expected to increase further by 2030. Much of that looming surge is a baby boomer phenomenon
- Among Americans ages 46–64, about 15% already have hearing problems, according to a survey by the Better Hearing Institute
- 2 out of 3 people with hearing loss are below retirement age
- 60% of people with hearing loss are male
- Only 12% of physicians today ask patients if they have any hearing problems
- Only 1 in 5 people who could benefit from hearing aids currently wear them