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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Medical Myths Medical Myths

Baby Boomers and Hearing Loss

February 08, 2013

By Robert H. Shmerling M.D.

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

You might assume, as I did, that the incidence of hearing loss is increasing with each generation. After all, baby boomers who listened to live or recorded rock 'n' roll at high volume surely must be losing their hearing faster than their parents and grandparents.

But research suggests that we'd both be wrong. Hearing loss may actually be less common among the aging boomers than their predecessors.

And what about today's kids? Are they headed for trouble given their tendency to blast the volume on their MP3 players? Or will the decline in hearing loss continue with the current generation of teenagers and young adults? The answer isn't clear, as they weren't part of this study.

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Boomers Have Better Hearing than Their Parents

Our parents and grandparents may not want to hear it (sorry!), but all those warnings they gave us about listening to Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull and Jimi Hendrix may have been a waste of time and effort.

A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in January 2010 found that, on average, boomers have better hearing than their parents. An analysis of hearing among more than 5,000 adults ages 45 to 75 found that for many years, the incidence of hearing problems has actually been falling.

  • Men in their early 60s born between 1930 and 1934 had a 58% rate of at least mild hearing loss. But for similarly aged men born between 1935 and 1939, the rate was 50%. And for men born between 1945 and 1949, it was 36%.
  • Men had better hearing the more recently they were born. For example, a man born in 1945 who was 50 in 1995 was 13% less likely to have hearing loss than someone born in 1940 who was age 50 in 1990.
  • Similarly, a woman born in 1945 who was 50 in 1995 was 6% less likely to have hearing loss than someone born in 1940 who was age 50 in 1990.

These findings might not apply to everyone. The study population was primarily Caucasian and, of course, it's not clear whether this trend will continue. But these findings were striking — and unexpected.

Researchers studying these trends offered several possible explanations for their findings. These include:

  • Better protection for workers' hearing
  • Better protection against hearing damage during war and while hunting (which could explain the larger improvements among men)
  • Declining popularity of smoking (as smoking may be associated with hearing loss)
  • More widespread immunizations and better antibiotics that may prevent or treat ear infections

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Hearing is a complicated process

Age-related changes in the ear make it a challenge to maintain good hearing as we get older.

Our ears work by funneling sound to the eardrum (or tympanic membrane). On the other side of the eardrum are three small bones that transmit sound vibrations to the cochlea. The cochlea is a fluid-filled structure where cells with tiny hair-like tubes (called cilia) convert the sound vibrations into electrical signals. These signals are transmitted to the auditory nerve and then to the brain.

With age or with loud noises, cilia become damaged or die. And because cilia cannot regrow, hearing loss is permanent. Genetics may also play an important role, as hearing loss may run in families.

That said, not all hearing loss is due to aging. Some people have excessive ear wax (cerumen) that needs to come out. Infections, tumors in the ear and many other conditions can result in hearing loss. So, if you've noticed your hearing is not what it used to be, see your doctor.

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The Bottom Line

Hearing is like so many things — it's underappreciated until it's gone. And yet, it's entirely possible – some would say likely — that the trend noticed in this latest research will soon reverse.

As current generations of teenagers and young adults age, they may notice higher and higher rates of hearing impairment. Years of blaring music through your earbud headphones can do that.

So, take care of your ears. Turn down the volume of music you listen to through headphones and in your car. Or, try turning the music off for a bit and give your ears a rest. Besides protecting your ears, you might also notice something strange: There are some pretty interesting sounds all around you.

Learn more about protecting your hearing at the Better Hearing Institute's website.

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Robert H. Shmerling, M.D. is associate physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and associate professor at Harvard Medical School. He has been a practicing rheumatologist for over 20 years at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He is an active teacher in the Internal Medicine Residency Program, serving as the Robinson Firm Chief. He is also a teacher in the Rheumatology Fellowship Program.

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