January 27, 2010

Baby Boomers’ Hearing Better Than Expected

Despite warnings over loud rock music damaging their ears, the baby boomer generation appears to have better hearing than their parents did.

A new study suggests that the rate of hearing problems at ages 45 to 75 has been dropping for years, at least among white Americans.

"I'm less likely to have a hearing loss when I get to be 70 years old than my grandmother did when she was 70," Karen Cruickshanks of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told the Associated Press.

Cruickshanks, the author of the study, is a baby boomer that said she remembers taking criticism from her mother for listening to loud music.

Her research has shown that what people do and experience may help them prevent or delay hearing loss as they get older. 

Experts have theorized that there might be several reasons for the finding, like fewer noisy jobs and better ear protection at worksites, as well as immunizations and antibiotics that prevented certain diseases.

Although experts praise the work, they agree that scientists must now study whether the pattern holds up outside its largely white participants.

They said the results do not mean it is safe to listen to music loudly from an iPod for hours.

Cruickshanks, along with colleagues, reported their findings in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

The team analyzed results of hearing tests given to about 5,300 people that were at least 45 years of age.  The tests were taken between 1993 and 2008, and many participants were tested at five-year intervals. 

The researchers looked at how many tests showed at least mild hearing loss and then to see if the rate of impairment at given ages was affected by when the person was born.

Men showed an average of a 13 percent drop in the risk of impairment for every five-year increase in the date of their birth.  In women, the decrease was about 6 percent.

The team is now trying to uncover reasons for the decline.

Cruickshanks said the explanation would probably be complex and hard to find because the pattern has been going on for decades.

However, she said factors might include fewer people with long-term exposure to very loud noises at work, as well as a decline in smoking.  She added that changes in health care, including immunizations and use of antibiotics could also play a role.

Elizabeth Helzner, an epidemiologist who studies age-related hearing loss at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, said the study is "very impressive."

She said the findings make sense in light of declines in long-term exposure to loud noise without ear protection in the workplace, and perhaps in hunting and battle.

According to Helzner, those exposures would have happened more to men than women, which would help explain why the results were more dramatic in men.

She added that another factor could be better control of diabetes and heart disease, which are both linked to hearing loss.

Helzner questions the decline with today's youth due to their eardrums being exposed for a long duration through earbuds.  She said that chronic exposure might prove more hazardous than the briefer bouts baby boomers had.


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