NEW YORK (AP) -- In the ad, two laughing couples, perhaps in their late 40s -- their teeth flashing, skin tanned -- crowd together on a sofa, sharing a conversation and maybe a joke or two, and clearly relishing each other's company.
''For every need and lifestyle,'' says a headline over the photo, the subject of which is not at all evident. What product is being pitched here as a key to living life to its fullest?
Why, hearing aids, of course.
As baby boomers enter their 40s and 50s, many more of them are encountering hearing problems stereotypically associated with old age. And an industry that has long worked with some frustration to persuade more older Americans to wear hearing aids has spotted what is logically the next big market for its products.
''We're picking up the challenge, to a greater and greater degree, of figuring out how to dialogue with boomers,'' said Carole Rogin, president of the Hearing Industries Association, which represents the $1 billion-a-year U.S. hearing aid business.
''All of the companies are trying to reflect the array of ages and lifestyles of people with hearing loss and certainly 78 million people moving into the segment of midlife to older Americans is an important marketing fact for companies,'' she said.
That interest reflects not only the number of boomers, but that more of them say their hearing isn't what it used to be.
The National Center for Health Statistics reports that 20.4 percent of people between the ages of 45 and 64 now say they have at least mild hearing loss. That figure, from a survey done in 1997, is up from about 14.8 percent in 1988.
In the past few years, President Clinton's and talk show host Rush Limbaugh's encounters with hearing loss have drawn widespread attention to the fact that such problems don't always wait for retirement.
It's not clear why more boomers are experiencing hearing loss. Some audiologists attribute it to boomers' exposure to loud music and other trappings of modern life, like snowmobiles and snowblowers. Others say the hearing of today's boomers is not any worse than past generations; they are just more demanding when it comes to health.
''I think baby boomers simply have the hearing their parents have but they have much higher expectations, and they have the complaint behaviors that is much more like their kids,'' said Dr. Robert Dobie of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communications Disorders. ''I think we're healthier than we used to be, but we demand more of our health.''
Those demands can turn into frustration for boomers, who find hearing loss complicates work and social activities that are the focus of an active lifestyle.
''I saw that these people had such different needs or issues then the senior population that tends to be retired,'' said Laurie Burman, audiology director at the Cleveland Speech and Hearing Center, who started a support group for boomers with hearing problems. ''Some of the boomers were so frustrated. They felt like nobody at work understands, nobody at home understands, none of my friends understand.''
To Mike McNamara, 55, the frustration of a hearing loss that began about five years ago isn't so much that people don't understand, but that it is starting to get in the way of everyday life. McNamara's daughter, an audiologist at the Cleveland clinic, has tried without success so far to persuade him to get a hearing aid.
''It's not an economic decision. I can afford a hearing aid. It's more vanity. You don't want to depend on it, even though you're missing stuff you shouldn't miss,'' said McNamara, who is vice president of a packaging company. ''It's also somewhat a stigma, like going bald, or wearing thick eyeglasses. With any of those things, there's nothing inherently wrong with them. You just see a stigma attached to it, or think there is.''
The stigma is one of long standing. The industry estimates that only about 20 percent of Americans with hearing problems wear hearing aids, a figure that has barely budged for years. That may say something about the expense of hearing aids -- from $800 to $3,000 per ear, depending on the sophistication of the device -- a cost not usually covered by insurance. But it also reflects a public mindset that awards hearing aids all the cachet and sex appeal of, say, orthopedic shoes, people in the industry say.
The industry is working to change that, noting that the active boomer lifestyle may not allow for hearing problems to go unaddressed.
Nearly all boomers -- a label that technically applies to people born in the post-World War II years who are now between the ages of 38 and 56 -- are still working. Most say they intend to keep doing so past the traditional age of retirement, a viewpoint that reflects a widespread determination to stay fully engaged in society, rather than withdrawing.
Hearing aid manufacturers say they're zeroing on that market, with new products and marketing to tout them. The newest hearing aids rely on digital technology, have multiple microphones and are programmable, so they adjust to the acoustic environments as varied as symphony concerts or the din of a crowded restaurant. Most are so small they fit entirely in the ear.
To reach more consumers, the business has waged a campaign in recent years to persuade physicians to screen for hearing loss as a routine part of physical exams. They've pitched their products at a broader, younger audience through advertising both to consumers, and to the audiologists who must fit people with aids.
One company, Songbird Medical of Cranbury, N.J., whose business is built around sales of a new, $79 disposable hearing aid, is trying to target a wider range of consumers, with a pilot effort to sell its devices at eyecare counters in Wal-Mart stores in the U.S. and Boots stores in England.
''Baby boomers are a little more open to change than perhaps the generation before,'' said Tom Gardner, Songbird's chairman and CEO. ''I think baby boomers will help people understand that it's not a bad thing if you have to wear a hearing aid.''
On the Net:
Hearing Industries Association: www.hearing.org
National Institute on Deafness and Other Communications Disorders: www.nidcd.nih.gov
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