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Do Older Adults Hear Differently?

Many people will experience hearing loss as they get older.  The hearing of the typical 40-year old is already slightly poorer than the hearing of the typical 18-year old.

Presbycusis – the loss of hearing due to aging - is one of the most common causes of hearing loss.  The most common pattern is a loss of hearing for the high-pitched sounds important for understanding speech.  In other words, you can still hear speech, but may feel that “I can hear but I can’t understand.”

Older adults – meaning adults 50 years old and over – may experience more difficulty understanding complex sounds even if they have normal hearing. These adults may not have difficulty understanding speech in a quiet room or talking with one person.  But older adults may have significantly more difficulty understanding speech in noisy conditions, such as a busy restaurant.  This increased difficulty develops even in older adults with normal hearing.

Although our ears hear the sounds around us, it is our hearing nerve and our brain that allow us to understand those sounds.  There is more and more evidence that as we get older, there are changes in the auditory system independent of any loss of hearing sensitivity.  These changes include a slowing in the speed at which our nerves transmit signals.  In other words, it’s not only our ears that can be the source of hearing difficulties – it’s also our brain.

As a result, older adults may have greater difficulty in noisy settings compared to younger individuals with the same hearing levels.  This may also explain why it is not unusual for someone to think his or her hearing has gotten worse even when hearing levels and the ability to understand speech in quiet are unchanged.

The effects of these changes in the hearing nerves ands brain may be minimized by using hearing aids to stimulate the auditory system (as well as to provide better hearing).  But as important as they are, remember that hearing aids do not correct or cure these changes to the central auditory system.  Other communication strategies, such as lipreading and avoiding noisy restaurants, can also be very helpful.

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