Audience members at a concert

Who says you've got to be young to rock and roll? The Who have been touring since early May and plan to continue through late October. Billy Joel plays Madison Square Garden in New York regularly, and does other shows elsewhere. And the Rolling Stones recently wrapped up their U.S. tour—which they postponed for three months so Mick Jagger could recover from heart valve surgery. 

But if you're a baby boomer (age 55 and up), ensuring that you hear the instruments and vocals clearly and at a level that’s comfortable and safe can be a challenge at live shows.

That's because about 1 in 3 people between ages 65 and 74 and nearly half of those older than 75 have hearing loss, according to the National Institutes of Health. That may make it harder to hear your favorite tunes as well as the patter in between songs.

“Most people with hearing loss lose their ability to hear higher frequencies of sound, so they may miss some of the nuances of the music and speech,” explains Paul K. Farrell, Au.D., associate director of audiology professional practices at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA).

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On the flip side, some live shows may be ear-splittingly noisy, posing risks for those with and without hearing loss.

And attending even one loud concert without taking the proper precautions can inflict damage, notes Farrell.

“Any type of concert can cause hearing loss, depending on how close you are to the speakers, and in a matter of minutes,” he says.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, noise over 85 decibels over a prolonged period of time may start to damage your hearing. For example, gas-powered lawn mowers and leaf blowers, with an average sound of 80 to 85 dB, can harm hearing after 2 hours of exposure. And rock concerts are typically between 95 and 115 dBs, says the NIH. 

The resulting hearing problems—which often include tinnitus, or ringing in the ears—may  be lasting in some cases.

One possible reason: Exposure to loud noise like rock concerts, especially over the years, can kill off the sound-conducting hair cells of the inner ear, causing permanent hearing loss, according to Farrell. 

All of this doesn’t mean you have to bow out of that Sting concert or give up your season tickets to the symphony.

If you take a few precautions, you can enjoy live music as much as you used to. Here’s how.

Bring Protection for Your Ears

The most effective way to safeguard your hearing is to wear simple drugstore earplugs.

2016 study of 51 concertgoers, published in JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery, found that only 8 percent of those who wore earplugs with a noise reduction rate of 18 decibels experienced hearing loss compared with 42 percent of those who didn't wear earplugs.

And only 12 percent of the earplug wearers experienced tinnitus compared with 40 percent of nonusers following the 41/2-hour concert.

But drugstore earplugs can make music sound odd, experts say.

One good option: so-called musician earplugs, which are designed to decrease sound equally across all pitches. “The sound is quieter, but it is ‘correct’,” says Palmer. These are available online and at audiology practices from $10 to $40.

“You can clip the little carrying case onto your keychain or purse and have them with you wherever you go, so you don’t have to remember to grab them before a concert,” says Catherine Palmer, Ph.D., president-elect of the American Academy of Audiology.

(Some people may have ear canals that are too small or bent to comfortably wear noncustom musician earplugs. If that’s the case, you’ll want to go to an audiologist and have them custom made, which could cost $100 to $300.)

And if you’re taking your grandkids to a concert, make sure to have ear protection for them. Children are especially prone to hearing damage from loud noise because their ear canals are small. Protective earmuffs are a good option for infants and toddlers because it’s hard to find ear plugs that will fit them.

Choose Your Seats With Care

This is one time when it makes sense to sit in the back. ASHA recommends staying at least 500 feet from noise emitters, such as speakers. (That’s a little less than one-tenth of a mile.)

Speakers are usually on the stage but are sometimes elsewhere, so you may want to call the venue before you buy your ticket to find out which seats will keep you safely away from them, Farrell recommends.

Outdoor venues tend to be kinder on ears since the sound isn’t trapped in a confined space, as it is at an indoor venue, he adds. 

Take Breaks From the Noise

Even if you’re at a safe distance from speakers and are wearing ear protection, it’s still a good idea to take a couple of breathers during a live show.

“Even a minute or two break gives your ears a rest, which in turn may help stave off hearing damage,” Farrell says.

Consider using an app like the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s Sound Level Meter App on your iOS device. This allows you to check volume levels at concerts (and elsewhere), so you can plan your exposure time. And get more info on a variety of noise levels and safe exposure time here.

And If You Wear Hearing Aids ...

If you have hearing loss, you may wonder whether or not to bring your hearing aids to a concert. “If you’re paying $100 for your symphony tickets, you probably want to enjoy the full breadth of sound [and wear your aids],” says Kelly Tremblay, Ph.D., CCC-A, an audiologist, neuroscientist, and former professor in the University of Washington's Department of Speech & Hearing Sciences. 

But your aids may lead to a mediocre listening experience. For one thing, the devices were designed for speech, not music, which contains a broader range of frequencies that can’t easily be replicated by hearing aids.

In addition, some newer hearing aid features can interfere with the musical experience. For instance, feedback cancellation or noise reduction may mistake the sounds of an organ or a flute for feedback or background noise and suppress them.

Your audiologist can show you how to adjust the volume control on your hearing aids throughout a live concert and/or disable other features like feedback cancellation or noise reduction. (Most hearing aids can be configured with a “music setting” that does this automatically, Tremblay says.)

It’s also helpful to ask ahead of time whether the venue has a hearing loop, a special type of sound system for people with hearing aids, advises Elizabeth Levine-Davis, Au.D., CCC-A, coordinator of the hearing aid dispensary at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai in New York City.

The loop emits a wireless signal that can be picked up by your hearing aid when it’s set to telecoil (also called t-switch or t-coil).

This allows sound to flow directly into your hearing aid, eliminates most background noise, and significantly improves your understanding of speech and music, according to the Hearing Loss Association of America. 

Other options include infrared systems (where a transmitter sends music via infrared lightwaves to a receiver you wear), and FM systems that use radio signals to transmit amplified sound up to 300 feet to a receiver.

Finally, if you’re going to be at a rock concert or another event that you know is likely to be exceptionally loud, you may want to simply remove your hearing aids during the show, Farrell says.