Baby Boomers & Hearing Loss — Book Excerpt

Circa 2007

The new book, Baby Boomers and Hearing Loss: A Guide to Prevention and Care, explores what happens to the rock-n-roll generation after the party’s over. In this excerpt, author John M. Burkey, director of audiology at the Lippy Group for Ear, Nose & Throat in Warren, Ohio, asserts that this aging group—born between 1946 and 1964—is not only living longer than previous generations, but also will need to rely on its hearing more.

Since the industrial revolution, people have coped with hearing loss resulting from noise exposure. Loud sounds can damage the effectiveness of our ears. Knowing this, we might conclude that the many governmental regulations aimed at protecting us from industrial and other noise would give baby boomers a hearing advantage over previous generations. This does not take into account boomers’ love of rock and roll, blues and other amplified music. Many in this group have spent a lifetime of being exposed to potentially damaging levels of music. Research clearly shows that the risk to hearing can be significant if the music is loud enough.

One group of researchers ultimately concluded that the individuals at risk of hearing loss have “maladapted listening patterns,” such as the habit of listening to extremely loud music for long periods. Although this would not put all baby boomers in jeopardy, it would definitely increase the likelihood of hearing loss for some. boomers who frequent nightclubs or aerobics classes, in which the music is often played at damaging levels, may also suffer hearing loss at higher rates. How many loud places do you routinely frequent after which you experience ear pain, ringing, a plugged sensation or decreased hearing?

Regardless of how we choose to look at this issue of noise-induced hearing loss—industrial, music or other—the picture is not promising for baby boomers. An age-adjusted study conducted in Alameda, California, found that the prevalence of hearing loss nearly doubled between 1965 and 1994. This trend is not something this group should take lightly.

In addition to listening habits, baby boomers must factor in the inevitable decline of hearing in old age. The youngest members of this generation are now entering middle age. The oldest members of this generation are entering their sixth decade of life. Although they may all still count themselves as members of the young generation, the math belies this. baby boomers as a group are approaching old age, and the maladies that accompany it.

The incidence and severity of hearing loss increase with age. Just how many people become affected is debatable, depending on how we choose to define hearing loss. The percentage is lowest if we only include those individuals with a more noticeable or handicapping hearing loss. In this case, one-third of the people 70 years of age or older are affected. If we use this same age group and also include those with a slight but measurable hearing loss, the percentage jumps to 60. Bridging the gap between these extremes is a study in which 46 percent of the older adults of Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, were found to suffer hearing loss. The average age of the residents was 65.8 years. These statistics will likely parallel what baby boomers are set to experience.

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Not only does this group face the increas prospect of hearing loss as it ages, but it will likely live longer with the disability than have previous generations. The average baby boomer has a life expectancy at birth of nearly 70 years, which is four to eight years more than that of the previous generation. In fact, the expected longevity for boomers who are alive today is higher than these statistics suggest, because fatalities such as childhood maladies, accidents and other mishaps have already taken their toll. Statisticians have estimated that men who live to 65 years of age can expect to live 16 years longer, and women who live to 65 can expect to live 19 years longer, which represents a lot of years to deal with the prospect of hearing loss.

The hordes of baby boomers who are now approaching retirement age are poised to disrupt many long-held plans, promises, assumptions and expectations about retirement. Two of the biggest issues are whether members of this generation will be able to retire and, if so, when. If they must continue to work, then their hearing must be sharper than if they were playing golf with friends in Florida.

If we start by considering how well the average baby boomer has been saving for retirement, things look pretty good. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reports that the typical boomer earns a higher income and has accumulated more wealth than his or her parents had at a similar age. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) projects that this group will generally earn more in retirement than current retirees. If we look beyond these averages, however, not everyone does so well. The CBO also reports that a quarter of boomers have failed to accumulate significant savings and are likely to depend entirely on government programs for retirement. Another quarter will need to reduce its standard of living. The AARP notes a gradually widening gap between the best-off and worst-off households. In addition, it reports that the lowest-earning 20 percent of baby boomers will receive 80 percent of its income from Social Security.

A number of assumptions go into projecting financial preparedness for retirement. The projections may vary greatly, depending on the specific assumptions and their accuracy. Demographers made this point by noting that, with favorable assumptions, a household could be expected to accumulate sufficient wealth for retirement by saving 3 percent to 9 percent of its income per year. With different assumptions such as a poor return on investments or longer life expectancy, these savings requirements could increase to as high as 16 percent to 29 percent per year. Taking this variability into account, one study concludes that one third of baby boomers were accumulating sufficient wealth for retirement under any reasonable set of assumptions. The remaining third may or may not have sufficient wealth for retirement. It all depends on how things actually work out.

Government programs that retirees have traditionally relied on such as Social Security and Medicare are likely to be overwhelmed by the number of baby boomers. By 2020, one in six Americans will be 65 years of age or over—20 million more people than were in that age category in 2002. At the same time, the ratio of workers paying taxes into Social Security and Medicare, compared with retirees drawing benefits will be at an all-time low. Even with the former increasing the eligibility age to 67, the cost of this entitlement is expected to rise. It is difficult to envision a scenario in which these realities will not place limitations on baby boomer benefits.

Although some would look to the stock market as the answer, this is not without its own problems. First, there are obvious risks such as the Enron fiasco or the downturn at the end of the 1990’s. The biggest problem arises from the devaluation of assets that will occur when baby boomers sell their stocks to finance their retirement. It is difficult to make a profit from selling when everyone is trying to sell. Looking at all of the information that is available to him today, Harry Dent, the financial guru who predicted the stock market boom of the 1990s, forecasts a bear market through the majority of the baby boomer retirement years. He warns that although he expects stocks to do well from 2005 to 2009, the market will most likely lose value after 2010.

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Family has traditionally formed at least part of the safety net for many people in their retirement years. Children may help with financial support, a place to live or as unpaid caregivers. This support will be less available for many boomers because they had fewer children. By 2020, the number of retirees living alone and without family support is expected to be double what it was in 1990. As a result, this generation may need to be increasingly self-reliant.

Perhaps it is not surprising that many baby boomers plan to continue working after retirement. The AARP reported that about 80 percent of this group plans to

work in some capacity during its retirement years. A growing percentage is planning to work out of financial necessity rather than for enjoyment. A 2000 Texas Department on Aging survey of that state’s boomers found that 68 percent plan to continue to work after retirement. Currently just 12 percent of the older population is employed in the Texas workforce.

Hearing loss may also be problematic for many baby boomers because they have high expectations for their lifestyle. They have lived during a very affluent time and would never have become known as the “me” generation without an underlying affluence to support their self-indulgence. A “me” generation would not have arisen during the Great Depression. Poverty and financial hardship have existed during the Baby Boom years, but not with the same incidence found in previous generations. The level of financial hardship known by boomers has more often meant buying fewer record albums or an economy car rather than an inexpensive import.

This generation has also lived during a time of seemingly unlimited possibilities. They experienced the startling feats of Sputnik circling the earth in 1957, and a man walking on the moon in 1969. The transistor was invented in 1948 and was followed a decade later by the integrated circuit. This made possible the computer- and information- technology revolutions. Medical advances were made in diagnostics, imaging, surgery, microsurgery, cosmetic surgery, transplants, pharmaceuticals and the like.

Regardless of the field, progress seemed to be moving at an ever-increasing pace. Although some people may have felt overwhelmed by these advances, baby boomers were much better prepared to cope and even thrive. They had attained a higher level of education than any previous generation. Nearly 90 percent completed high school, and almost 30 percent completed a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the 2000 U.S. Census Bureau. This education gave boomers the tools to better understand and benefit from the progress being made. But this progressive atmosphere has not prepared them to graciously accept limits.

Baby boomers typically see themselves as too young to suffer hearing loss. So when they do, it may be seen as a failure of the medical and scientific advances that they have come to expect. Hearing loss represents unforeseen disability and hardship. It means one may have to do less or settle for less. Although some boomers may wish to follow the lead of previous generations and try to ignore hearing loss as a problem, this strategy is impractical and almost guarantees a negative outcome. Reduced quality of life becomes a concern.

The good news is that baby boomers who suffer hearing loss have medical, surgical and technological solutions that were unavailable to previous generations. They are also more likely to have the education to be able to evaluate these options. Even better, the majority of this generation still have time before hearing loss is likely to be a problem. That is, it is possible to act now to minimize the risk of developing hearing loss. There is also the chance that new treatments will become available between now and the time they’ll be needed. What’s more, we have the option to support research or other hearing-related programs from which we might ultimately benefit. So baby boomers have the chance to take control of—rather than be controlled by—the future quality of their hearing.

This excerpt was adapted from Baby Boomers and Hearing Loss: A Guide to Prevention and Care, by John M. Burkey, © 2007 and published by Rutgers University Press

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