Carri Milch of Williamsville considers herself part of the Woodstock Generation. She listened to plenty of music while attending concerts and dances as a young person in the 1960s and ’70s.
“It was a time in life, I think, when everybody was engaged in music,” she said. “There was a message in the music back then, and that was important to people.”
Now 70 and retired, she requires hearing aids just to properly engage in conversation with friends and family, or understand the evening newscast.
Fifty years after the famous Woodstock festival, many like Milch are realizing their listening habits during that era may be impacting their ability to listen today.
In a recent survey by The Harris Poll and commissioned by hearing aid-maker Oticon, 47% of older adults who say they listened to loud music in their youth say they now have some form of hearing loss.
“We know that hearing loss that is a result of exposure to loud music and other loud sounds often times doesn’t manifest immediately,” said Milch’s audiologist, Dr. Jill Bernstein of Hearing Evaluation Services of Buffalo. “They listen to the music, they might have a little tinnitus — that high-pitched ring — when they leave, but the next morning they feel fine, when in reality, they caused permanent damage to their hearing system. It’s just going to take another 20 to 30 years to show up.”
While aging, genetics and medication are also factors, loud sound damages outer hair cells, the amplifiers of the ear. Up to 30% to 50% of these cells can be damaged or destroyed before changes in hearing can be measured by a hearing test.
Milch said she first noticed her hearing loss in her early 50s. Working as a teacher, she thought her students were mumbling and found herself trying to read their lips, but then it happened with friends and family, too.
“You start to be the left-out person,” she said. “They’re all laughing at something and you have no idea what they’re laughing about and that’s sort of startling. Your world shrinks.”
This can have larger consequences, too.
Research shows hearing loss can cause isolation, loneliness and even dementia. A study published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association found it can increase the risk of dementia by 50%.
“Your brain is diverting resources to hearing that it should be using for memory and then you withdraw from activities so you’re less engaged and that affects your memory,” said Bernstein, noting the common theories surrounding the link between hearing loss and dementia.
Despite these issues, many people never address their hearing loss.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, only 46% of adults with hearing trouble have seen a doctor about it in the previous five years and only 30% of adults over the age of 70 who could benefit from hearing aids are actually using them.
Bernstein said there’s still a stigma attached to hearing loss and wearing hearing aids.
“When you have hearing loss and you refuse to wear hearing aids because you think it will make you look old, everybody knows you can’t hear,” she said, adding she recommends every person get a baseline hearing test at 50. “They have to repeat themselves, you laugh at inopportune moments. If you just wore hearing aids no one would even realize you had hearing loss because you’d just be functioning normally.”
Milch said her world has “opened up” since she started wearing hearing aids about seven years ago.
“When you can’t hear you’re at such a disadvantage and all the sudden the world reawakens again, it’s really a big deal,” she said.
However, hearing aids can be pricey, costing as much as $3,000 for one ear. They’re also not covered by Medicare and many private insurance plans.
Hearing aids for mild to moderate hearing loss are expected to be available over the counter at cheaper costs sometime next year, after Congress passed the Over the Counter Hearing Aid Act in 2017.
Bernstein, whose practice is a nonprofit and has a fund to help lower-income patients afford hearing aids, said the cost is often worth it.
“It’s not a small expense, but it’s something that you’re going to wear all day and it’s going to impact every interaction that you have,” she said.
Bernstein worries hearing loss will be even more prevalent when the young people of today are seniors.
The World Health Organization stated in 2015 that nearly 50% of people between the ages of 12 and 35 are exposed to unsafe sound from their personal audio devices.
“Kids today are wearing earbuds in their ears — especially on weekends — five, six hours a day. They're in their ears all the time,” Bernstein said. “It’s putting the source of the sound closer to their eardrum as opposed to having speakers on their radio in their room, and a lot of devices can go to dangerously loud levels.”