Older Adults Are Better at Listening Than You Think

Hearing Loss

Older individuals might have better hearing in noisy environments than we think.

Older adults may be better than previously thought at listening in loud social environments.

Ever mumble under your breath when your grandmother asks you to assist wipe the table after family dinner or complain about your grandpa’s tendency to cheat during a competitive game of gin rummy? You might want to speak less loudly since there’s a good chance that they can hear you more clearly than you think.

New research from Baycrest and Western University suggests that older individuals may be more adept at hearing in loud settings than previously thought. Older adults may enjoy and process discussions better than previous studies have shown, whether it be at a packed restaurant or a crowded family function. If true, this would enhance their quality of life and enable them to connect meaningfully with others who are going through similar experiences, thereby lowering their risk of dementia as social isolation is a risk factor for cognitive decline.

Scientists have long believed that older adults seem to be less able to employ speech “glimpses” (using the speech they hear more clearly during brief reductions in background noise to better grasp discussions in loud environments) than younger adults.

However, the Baycrest-Western University study demonstrates that this may not be the case for more natural speech and may only be true for the rather dull, disjointed, and artificial phrases that are often utilized in laboratory settings. In other words, it might be easier for older adults to hear speech in loud environments than previously believed.

In the study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, younger and older adult participants listened to engaging stories or disconnected sentences without a clear topic – for example, “Smoky fires lack flame and heat.” The researchers added two kinds of background noise: one that varied in volume, allowing for glimpses, and one that did not vary. The researchers regularly stopped the speech and background noise to ask the participants to report exactly what they understood. The researchers then calculated how many words were understood correctly.

They found that for more natural speech that mimics speaking in everyday life, such as stories, older adults benefited from speech glimpses as much as, or more than, younger adults. Conversely, they benefited less when listening to disconnected sentences.

“These results suggest that older adults may be better at listening in noisy social settings than has long been thought. Our study also highlights the importance of cognitive and motivational factors for speech understanding. Older adults who do not perform well on listening tasks in lab settings may do better in real-life settings,” says Dr. Björn Herrmann, Baycrest’s Canada Research Chair in Auditory Aging, Scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute and the senior author on this study.

With additional funding, Dr. Herrmann and his team could investigate what mechanisms in the brain enable older adults to benefit more from natural speech than disconnected laboratory sentences, and how natural speech could be more extensively used in clinical practice to assess older adults’ hearing.

Reference: “Age-related deficits in dip-listening evident for isolated sentences but not for spoken stories” by Vanessa C. Irsik, Ingrid S. Johnsrude and Björn Herrmann, 7 April 2022, Scientific Reports.
DOI: 10.1038/s41598-022-09805-6

The study was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and Canada Research Chairs.

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