Researchers have been studying hearing loss for years, looking for explanations of how we hear, and how we’re affected by hearing loss. While hearing loss affects people of all ages, age related hearing loss is the most common kind of hearing loss. Approximately 1 in 3 seniors over the age of 65 have hearing loss, and seniors face more hearing challenges than younger adults. A recent study from Western University in Canada shows how we are more sensitive to sound as we age, and explains some of the listening challenges of older adults.
Hearing in Background Noise
We all struggle to hear in places with a lot of background noise. Think about the last time you joined your friends for dinner in a packed restaurant. You had to yell to be heard by the person sitting across the table from you, and it was hard to pick out the sound of their voice in all the background noise. Another example of this effect is hearing in a packed auditorium or stadium. At a concert or sports venue, the background noise is so overpowering that it’s nearly impossible to hear what your friend is saying, even if they’re yelling right into your ear.
Studying Sensitivity to Sound
The study from Western University suggests that older adults have a much harder time hearing in background noise than younger adults, and this explains some of the listening challenges faced by older adults. The researchers, led by Björn Herrmann, looked at the different ways older and younger adults responded to sounds in their environment. They measured auditory responses in participants in their 20s and 60s to see how they reacted to loud and soft sounds. Herrmann found that people of different ages respond very differently to the sounds around them.
The study discovered that older adults are far more sensitive to sound than younger adults. They are equally sensitive to both soft and loud sounds in the environment, and they’re sensitive to both important sounds and background sounds. Younger adults, on the other hand, are less sensitive to soft sounds, and more sensitive to loud sounds. They are more successful in adapting to the sound environment, and aren’t equally sensitive to all the sounds.
Older Adults are More Sensitive to Sound
So what are the implications of this study? It’s clear that younger adults are less sensitive to sound. This means that when they’re in a loud environment, their brains are able to filter the sounds better, and disregard background sounds. They become less sensitive to softer background noise, and this helps them focus on the important sounds they want to hear.
Older adults, on the other hand, are more sensitive to sound. Their brains respond the same way to all the sounds in the environment, whether they want to focus on them or not. This increased sensitivity to all sounds makes it hard to tune out background noise, or ignore sounds you don’t want to focus on. This extra auditory information overloads the auditory system, and it’s much harder to hear in places with a lot of background noise.
Challenging Listening Environments
This study helps explain why older adults face so many challenging listening environments. Unlike younger adults who become less sensitive to soft background sounds, older adults remain very sensitive to all the soft background sounds, even if they’re not important. This is very distracting and unpleasant in certain situations, such as at a crowded restaurant or music concert.
Because their auditory system is increasingly sensitive to all the sounds in their environment, older adults are more likely to find a variety of settings frustrating or distracting. Their ears and brain aren’t able to adapt to all the background noise, or tune it out, so they often feel overwhelmed in certain environments.
Treating Hearing Loss
If you have trouble hearing, the sensitivity to sound will make it even harder to hear, and you’ll struggle to hear in places with a lot of background noise. One way to overcome this sensitivity to sound as we age is to treat hearing loss. Modern hearing aids have advanced programs designed to help you hear in challenging listening environments, reduce background noise, and help you focus on what you want to hear.