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The news from Beaver Dam: What it means and what it doesn't

Kirkwood, David H.

doi: 10.1097/01.HJ.0000369558.86357.13
From the Editor

If you searched the web recently under “hearing loss,” you probably read about a research study published in the January 15 American Journal of Epidemiology. The February issue of HJ's e-newsletter, The Ear Hears, ran an interesting feature about the study, including interviews with its two senior authors. Therefore, I won't go into detail about it here (if you missed that story you can find it at

But, in short, the researchers found that adults moving into their 50s and 60s today are less likely to be hearing-impaired than their parents and grandparents were at the same age. Drawing upon data from a longitudinal study of several thousand adult residents of Beaver Dam, WI, born between 1902 and 1962, and another study of their offspring, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that the later people were born the less likely they were to have hearing loss at any given age. For example, 36% of the men born between 1944 and 1949 had a hearing loss compared to 58% of those born between 1930 and 1935 when they were the same age.

This is a huge difference, and it's no wonder the study has drawn so much media comment. But, what's unfortunate is the particular spin that some accounts put on the findings. They suggest that until the study came out everyone believed that the baby boom generation and those following it had destroyed their hearing going to rock concerts and listening to iPods.

But that's more myth than reality. Yes, overexposure to loud sound, musical or not, can cause hearing loss and is something to be concerned about. But did any serious observer of the situation predict an epidemic of music-related hearing loss? The anticipated surge in hearing loss in coming decades was always based primarily on the sudden explosion in births following World War II.

Now the Wisconsin data seem to be causing some in the media to trade in one misguided theory—that rock destroyed the ears of a generation—for another—that there's no need to worry about overamplified music. One online article began, “AC/DC front man Brian Johnson may finally have a little hard evidence to back his claim that ‘rock ‘n’ roll ain't noise pollution.’”

The truth is, many factors, a lot of them controllable, affect the incidence of hearing loss. These include avoiding or protecting oneself against loud sound, at work and at play. Broader lifestyle changes also play a role. Quitting smoking, eating sensibly, and exercise are all good for hearing because they prevent heart conditions that can reduce blood flow to the inner ear.

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Speaking of misguided theories, I've heard some comment that the study's findings are bad news for the hearing industry. That's because the authors project that the later advent of hearing loss in more recent generations will mean that fewer people will be hard-of-hearing in 2020 or 2030 than has been anticipated.

But, in my opinion, what's happening in Beaver Dam and, I hope, elsewhere is welcome news. First of all, the mission of the hearing industry is to help people hear better, so we should celebrate when that occurs, whatever the reason. Anyone who has counseled patients or the public to protect their hearing from noise or ototoxins, has made or dispensed protective devices, or has lobbied OSHA to reduce the permissible noise limits in the workplace can share in the credit for what has happened.

But even from a more self-serving standpoint, there is reason to welcome the reported trends. The authors suggest that one reason for hearing loss being delayed is a general improvement in the health of the population studied. This includes a reduction in smoking and other lifestyle changes that lead to improved cardiovascular health. That means that those born since 1945 are not only keeping their hearing longer, but also that they are living longer, healthier lives than their parents.

That's good for them—and for hearing care providers. Even if more future patients get their first hearing aids at 75 instead of 70, we can expect these active, healthy septuagenarians and octogenarians to be returning for their second, third, and fourth sets of hearing aids at an age when previous generations were no longer in the market.

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