Sensitivity to Sound As We Age

Ron Middleton Ear Health

Ron Middleton

Growing old is a normal and special part of life, to be cherished and celebrated. It is important to be ready to adapt to inevitable changes that develop as we age, so we can do so gracefully. Often we move more slowly, need more time to recharge and our hearing ability will change. You are not just imagining that some sounds seem louder than others and more irritating than in your younger years. Scientists have long sought to explain this change in the ears as we age.

Age-related Hearing Loss

Age-related hearing loss (presbycusis) is a chronic health condition that affects approximately one-third of the world’s population between the age of 65-75 and nearly half of those over 75. Presbycusis is the gradual wear and tear on the ears as we age. Trouble with hearing can make it hard to communicate with the people around you, respond to the world around you, miss warnings, alarms, doorbells and phone calls. 

In many cases, a person will have no impairment in detecting sounds but still be over sensitive to certain sounds or tones, or will suffer from a reduced ability to understand speech in noisy environments. This is often referred to as a “hidden hearing loss” because it often does not show up on a regular hearing test audiogram. 

Auditory Cortex Study

Neuroscientists at Western University in Canada explored the differences between the way younger and older adults respond to auditory information to further understand how sound affects us differently as we age. Over a lifetime our ears are exposed to many sounds. When sounds surpass a decibel level of 85 our ears can sustain damage.  The tiny hairs and nerves, which detect sound, in our inner ears and send the information to our brains deteriorates leaving many of us with permanent hearing damage. Exposure to loud noise in conjunction with reduced blood flow to our inner ears contributes to presbycusis in seniors.  

An article published in the Journal of Neuroscience examined the differences in the auditory cortexes of individuals in their 20s and their 60s to explore the differences in sensitivity to sound in conjunction with age.  

“We looked at younger and older individuals who have clinically normal hearing and we looked at how the brain’s ability to adjust its sensitivity to sound levels is affected by aging,” said the study’s lead writer Björn Herrmann “What we observed is that older individuals don’t adapt as well to their sound environment.” This explains why some seniors become over sensitive to sounds, they struggle to tolerate while younger ears are not bothered in the slightest.  

Trouble Hearing in Crowded Environments

One of the most common problems for seniors as they age is singling out conversation in crowded places like restaurants and large gatherings. Neuroscientists are finding that this is not only a hearing issue but a brain issue as well. The brain struggles to filter out background noise making it difficult to understand what people are trying to say to you. 

“Our ability to hear in noisy conditions depends on how well our brain rhythms synchronize with the rhythms of the sound we’re trying to listen to,” says postdoctoral researcher of neuroscience at the University of Western Ontario, Molly Henry. Her research found that younger ears had a much easier time focusing on sound while older ears struggled.

How Hearing Aids Can Help

Even if you are struggling with hearing there is still hope. Part of aging gracefully is making sure you do not ignore your health as you age. Hearing aids amplify the sounds around you and send them to your inner ear to be heard with your existing hearing.  If you have been struggling with hearing loss, they can help you hear what people are saying to you.  Hearing aids can also help you filter out background noise so you can hear in crowded places. This expands the places you can go and communicate effectively increasing your sense of independence.  If you suspect that you are suffering from hearing loss but for some reason keep putting it off, today could be the day you set up a hearing test. There is quite a bit more maintenance for many of us as we age, but if we stay vigilant, we can enjoy a high quality of life for years to come.