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Boomers losing their hearing early


No question, baby boomers still love that old-time rock 'n' roll. But years of exposure to loud concerts, cranked-up stereos, blaring headphones and other environmental noises could be leading to an old age filled with silence, experts say.

Unlike their parents and grandparents, who typically developed age-related hearing loss in their 60s, baby boomers are experiencing the condition in their 40s and 50s, according to the National Council on Aging.

More than 10 million Americans between ages 45 and 64 have some hearing loss, compared with 9 million-plus who are 65 or older.

The statistics were so compelling that when the council undertook a new study on the emotional and social impact of hearing loss, researchers decided to drop the age of those polled to 50.

"Leaf blowers, snow blowers, power equipment, motorcycles and industrial noise can all contribute to high-frequency hearing loss," says Dr. Gerald Leonard, chief of otolaryngology at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington. "But you can't ignore the impact on hearing from repeated exposure to loud music. The levels at concerts, which are often 100 decibels and more, can over time cause permanent damage."

Music is one industry in which technology has outpaced the body's ability to cope, says Kathy Peck, co-founder of Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers, a California-based nonprofit group dedicated to raising awareness among musicians, technicians and fans of the dangers of repeated exposure to loud music.

Peck, a former bass player and singer for a San Francisco rock band, the Contractions, developed a ringing sensation in her ears, called tinnitus, and hearing loss from repeated exposure to excessive noise while performing in the 1980s.

"You may not be deafened immediately, but the damage will show up," says Peck, who is in her 50s. "At rock shows, the decibel level can be as great as 140 decibels in front of the speakers and 120 decibels at the back."

As a result, says Peck, many musicians, disc jockeys and concertgoers have experienced permanent hearing damage. HEAR estimates that 60 percent of rock stars inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are hearing-impaired.

The Better Hearing Institute lists Engelbert Humperdinck, Jeff Beck, Sting, Cher, Eric Clapton, Bono (whose stage name was taken from the name of a hearing-aid store in his hometown of Dublin, Ireland), Pete Townsend and Phil Collins among pop and rock stars suffering from tinnitus or hearing impairment or both.

According to Leonard, hearing loss sometimes comes on so gradually that others may notice the problem before you do. Symptoms can include a ringing or buzzing in your ears, sensitivity to loud noises and difficulty hearing others when there is background noise. Other signs are if people around you sound like they're mumbling or talking too quickly, if you always need to turn the volume on the television or radio higher, or if you hear better with one ear or the other.

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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