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LISTEN UP, BOOMERS: HEARING AIDS ARE IN YOUR FUTURE

As a teen-ager, William Jefferson Clinton played saxophone in local bands and with the Hot Springs High School band. For six summers he went to music camp.

Now he's paying the price for all that unprotected sax.

Bad pun, but there's truth to the fact that the loud sounds of President Clinton's youth, followed by years of noisy political rallies, have affected his hearing.

"A lot of baby boomers who have exposed themselves to loud concerts and other situations that took a toll on their hearing are now looking for help with hearing loss," said Michele Hartlove, executive director of the Better Hearing Institute, in Annandale, Va.

Since the First Ears have been fitted, the institute's 800 line has been ringing and there have been more hits on its Web site, Ms. Hartlove said. (The phone number for the Institute is (800) EAR-WELL. The Web site is www.betterhear
ing.org)

"This happened when President Reagan, who was a lot older, got his hearing aids," said Ms. Hartlove. "It motivated a lot of people to get hearing aids. (Another source says there was a 20 percent increase in sales.) We're seeing the same situation with President Clinton."

The president has company from among all ages, all party affiliations on this issue. The institute estimates that hearing loss is this country's foremost disability, with one in 10 Americans having a significant hearing impairment.

For an ailment that widespread, a lot of myths need to be corrected.

Only about one-quarter of the estimated 28 million Americans with hearing loss have been fitted with hearing aids, though technology has improved in the past few years. The institute says 95 percent of people with hearing loss can be helped, and Ms. Hartlove adds that today's hearing aids are sophisticated, advanced hearing "computers" that automatically adjust loudness and provide balanced sound.

So why don't more people use them?

Reluctance to admit there's a problem, says Ms. Hartlove. The belief that nothing will help. The fear of looking old.

The late actor Keenan Wynn, quoted in the book "When the Hearing Gets Hard," says: "You know what makes you look old? When you have to keep saying: 'What? Wha? Who?' That's what makes you look old."

For many the awareness comes, just as it did for Clinton, in groups when conversation turns to a sea of sounds. That's when background music, the clink of dinnerware obliterate individual conversation and the person is left feeling alone in a crowd.

Letting the problem go may put the person into a permanent funk, unable to enjoy interaction with others, to get pleasure from going to a concert or the movies.

Sometimes it sets them at odds with the people they live with.

"I went to an AARP meeting and had lots of wives and some husbands coming over to say their spouse wouldn't admit the loss and wondering what to do," Ms. Hartlove said.

What the experts advise is that the failing ear deserves as much attention as any other aging body part.

Helen Keller, who was blind and deaf, said that while loss of vision means losing contact with things, loss of hearing has a greater impact.

"It means," she was quoted as saying, "losing contact with people."

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