Hearing loss increasing; so are attractive solutions

The Baltimore Sun

Say what? Having trouble getting the buzz at the party because there's too much, er, buzz? Do those "s's," "f's," "t's" and "th's" sound too much alike?

A growing number of forty and fiftysomethings, baby boomers who grew up on rock music, played in bands and have enjoyed living loud in general, are seeking a new form of high-tech relief: Digital hearing devices that help recapture the high pitch frequency sounds they're beginning to lose.

A 2004 study by the Better Hearing Institute shows that more than 12 million people ages 45 to 64 are encountering hearing problems - and that two-thirds of Americans with hearing loss are below retirement age.

Another survey by the Ear Foundation projects that nearly half (49 percent) of the baby boomers are having difficulty with their hearing. More than half report difficulty using cell phones because of hearing loss while 75 percent say they find themselves in situations where people are not talking loudly enough or clearly enough.

Bill Clinton, Phil Collins, Bono, Eric Clapton and Cher are among the boomers who have experienced hearing loss.

"This is a generation that has grown up with very loud music and in a world with a lot of environmental noise like power mowers and leaf blowers," says Sharon Beamer, associate director for audiology professional practices of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. "But the biggest issue is music: Concerts, personal hearing systems like Sony Walkmen turned up very loud. ... Noise exposure is one of the most common causes of hearing loss."

Often avoided by previous generations as clunky, unsightly, difficult and stigmatizing, the new generation of hearing aids is becoming more acceptable - if not exactly desirable.

Attitudes are changing in part because of the design and advanced technology of these devices and in part because everyone seems to have a Bluetooth or an iPod hanging over, or out of, their ears, says Baltimore audiologist Deborah Doyle Allen.

There's also the incentive of finally being able to hear what the boss is saying at those two-hour meetings.

Allen, 54, uses one of the market's hippest new devices: The Delta by Oticon. She says her hearing loss stems from noise exposure - "machinery and going to concerts" - as well as a strong family history.

Being in the business, she began noticing her hearing loss earlier than most. About five years ago, she realized she was missing out on high frequency sounds and certain consonants.

"There are certain birds I can't hear any more," she says. "Also cicada and tree frog kind of sounds. In speech, it's more difficult to differentiate between words like "tape" and "take" and "cake." The hearing loss makes it more difficult to distinguish the speech attributes we need for understanding and intelligibility."

Half of the people older than 50 have trouble understanding speech in noisy listening situations, according to the Ear Foundation.

Allen wears a "champagne beige" Delta. The tiny triangle-shaped device, which sells from $1,500 to $3,000, comes in 17 different colors including cabernet red, samoa blue, mother of pearl and a leopard skin-pattern. And whenever she goes to a pop or rock concert, she slips in custom earplugs to help preserve her hearing.

To prevent accelerated hearing loss, she says, people should begin wearing hearing devices as soon as they become aware of a deficit. That helps preserve the brain's memory and recognition of the sound which is essential to what we consider "hearing."

Allen describes herself as a "situational user" who reserves her hearing aid mostly for meetings, lectures and restaurants. She wears the device in her right ear where she has a "very mild decrease" of hearing.

John Moraski, director of transmission at BG&E;, says he wore his flesh-colored behind-the-ear hearing aids for days before anyone noticed. In fact, he had to point them out to his family.

"I had a conventional hearing aid for two years and couldn't stand it," he says. "Whenever I talked, I felt like I had my head in a bucket. ... Now I hear so clearly that when I take them out, I feel like I have a pillow over my head."

The 56-year-old Parkville resident used to play bass guitar in L'Amoure, a band that performed at local parties and clubs in the late '60s and early '70s.

"I'm still a very big fan of music," he says. "I noticed once I got the hearing aids, I adjusted all my stereo settings, turned the treble down. And my wife says I don't play the TV as loud - or talk as loud."

He says his wife, Pat, doesn't need a high-tech hearing device. When it comes to hearing clearly, there's definitely a gender gap: The Ear Foundation reports that 62 percent of the boomers having trouble are men.


Hearing-loss facts

31.5 million Americans -- one out of 10 -- have hearing loss.

15 percent of Americans ages 45 to 64 have a hearing loss.

The majority (65 percent) of Americans with hearing loss are below retirement age.

The majority (about 60 percent) of Americans with hearing loss are men.

[ Source: The Better Hearing Institute]

Where to find help

For more information about hearing loss and ways to address it, visit the Better Hearing Institute Web site at betterhearing.org. The Web site has a written test to see whether you may be experiencing some hearing loss. The survey site is at betterhearing.org/hearing_loss/quickHearingCheck.cfm.

To find an audiologist near you for a hearing test, consult the American Academy of Audiology at audiology.org.

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