About one-third of Americans age 65 to 74 and half of Americans over age 75 have some form of hearing loss, but according to one recent study their ears may not be to blame.
Researchers discovered that it may in fact be the brain that affects hearing as you age.
The study, conducted by researchers at University of Maryland’s Institute for Systems Research, involved 15 adults age 61 to 73 and 17 adults age 18 to 27 who all had normal hearing. All the study participants underwent a series of hearing tests, some which featured background noise. Participants also underwent scans of their midbrain, which controls how the brain processes sound, and the cortex, which plays an important role in understanding speech.
Not surprisingly, younger participants performed better on the hearing test whether it was quiet or loud in the background. But the older adults struggled to hear when there was too much background noise.
“Separately from any typical hearing loss that might occur as we age, our brains also get worse at processing the sound of talking when there are other sounds at the same time,” said Jonathan Simon, the study’s co-author and an associate professor at the University of Maryland’s Institute for Systems Research.
Researchers found that in the older study participants the midbrain sent weaker neurological signals associated with hearing and the cortex took a longer time processing sound compared to the younger study participants. Researchers think that nerve damage associated with age may be the culprit, making it more challenging for an older brain to process sound and understand communication.
What this means is that it often takes much more effort for an elderly person to hear, and the brain is the driving factor for why this is so difficult for them.
So, what can seniors do to improve their hearing? Hearing aids can help, but hearing and speech therapy to improve speech comprehension issues also may be solutions. In more severe cases, cochlear implants, small electronic devices that are surgically placed in the ear, or assistive listening devices that amplify sound can compensate for some of the hearing loss seniors experience.
But the fact remains that many seniors will have to deal with hearing deficits as they get older. Fortunately, there’s plenty of technology that can help — even if the problem is your brain and not your ears.