By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition
There are already several explanations about why middle-aged and older people can’t understand speech in noisy environments. One may just be high-frequency hearing loss caused by noise, which makes it hard to hear the higher-pitched consonant sounds (F, S, SH, T, V) that allow us to differentiate similar sounding words (Fear, Sear, Shear, Tear, Veer). (See the graph in this CDC Vital Signs Issue.) Another reason may be a phenomenon called “hidden hearing loss,” which is caused by noise damage to nerve junctions (synapses) in the inner ear.
And now a new report indicates that there may also be a brain or central processing problem. A study conducted at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, “analyzed what happens in the brain when older adults have trouble listening in loud environments.” The researchers “monitored the brains of 20 younger adults ages 18 to 31, and 20 older adults in their 60s and 70s, during a listening task” in which constant background noise was played while participants were told to focus on certain targeted sounds.
What the researchers found was that “the younger adults were able to zero in on the target signals while filtering out the irrelevant noise,” but the older participants had “a harder time tuning out the background noise.” What remained unclear was whether the “degradation of the ear’s ability to hear actually leads to a decline in the brain’s ability to filter out noise and hear a single sound,” or whether “the brain’s listening ability erodes independently of any changes going on in the ear.”
As for why older people have a difficult time understanding speech in noisy environments, it most likely is that all three factors occur to varying degrees in various individuals. But one thing is certain, preventing hearing loss is simple: avoid loud noise. And improving the ability of people young and old to follow conversations is also simple: turn down the volume in indoor places.
Link via the UK Noise Association.
Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America.