Our hearing is an amazing masterpiece of biological design. From the tiny cells in our ear that detect soundwaves in the air, to the elaborate and near-instantaneous processes the brain performs to decipher meaning and direction, our hearing is a well-orchestrated dance that constantly works in our service.
Understanding our hearing and how it works have led to incredible advances in medicine and technology. One of the great feats our hearing performs is prioritizing noise in a way that allows us to suppress background noises and hone in on specific noises and conversations.
Hearing aids, used to treat hearing loss are constantly making advancements that effectively mimic the natural ways in which we hear. Digital sound balancing has especially helped hearing aids calibrate and prioritize sound, softening background noise and emphasizing important sounds. As hearing technology strives to mimic the hearing capacity of the ear, understanding how we process and organize sound is critical to new advancements.
A new medical study coming from Canada has shown a new twist in how hearing sensitivity is organized and managed in the brain. A group of researchers looked at sound sensitivity in two groups of people with healthy hearing, one sample group being young adults in their 20s, the other being older adults in their 60s.
The study observed how subjects processed sound information in noisy and complex environments, with interesting findings. When faced with a loud environment, the group of subjects in their 20s would suppress soft and quiet noises and focus on hearing the louder, more prominent sounds. Older individuals, on the other hand, had a tendency to try to take in the entirety of incoming sounds, often to the detriment of comprehension and focus. By prioritizing background sounds, older listeners were less well equipped to navigate the dominant sounds of a space and more likely to experience stress or anxiety from the surrounding sounds.
Researchers have characterized this pattern in older adults as an “over-sensitivity” to sound, meaning that the hearing in older adults loses its ability to prioritize incoming sounds effectively. Prioritizing sound is one of the most nuanced functions of our hearing. It helps us find our way through noisy and complex sound situations, follow conversations with multiple participants and streamline our ability to focus.
When this ability to prioritize worsens, it affects how well we can handle situations with a lot of speech or sound. Our capacity to navigate busy restaurants, concerts, sporting events, parties, even social spaces like classrooms, churches and stores, can all depend on how well we process sound and suppress insignificant background noises. If prioritizing sound becomes more difficult, it can have an effect similar to hearing loss – it becomes harder for us to enjoy and participate in noisy spaces. This lessened ability to handle complicated noise scenarios ultimately means we may begin to avoid them entirely.
The Canadian study has linked this over sensitivity and change in sound perception to a change in attitudes. Older adults are much more likely to find noisy situations “unpleasant” and “distracting” than younger adults. Even if older individuals do not have significant hearing loss, these findings show the multi-faceted impact aging has on hearing performance and function.
Hearing Loss and Aging
Aging is strongly tied to changes in how we hear. Most permanent hearing loss is gradual and cumulative, occurring when our hearing is exposed to excessively loud sounds that cause injury to the sensory cells in our ears. Hair cells, the tiny cells responsible for detecting sound waves in the air can be permanently destroyed when loud noises strain them past their limits. Damaged hair cells never regrow or repair themselves, so as they are damaged over the course of our lifetime, our sensitivity to sound is lessened and our hearing worsens.
Our hearing also becomes more delicate as we age. At 50, about 1 in 3 people have significant hearing loss. By age 65, that percentage raises to 1 in every 2 adults. Nearly 90% of people over the age of 90 have hearing loss, indicating not only gradual damage but less resiliency to hearing damage as well.
Lifestyle Hearing Solutions
While most hearing loss is permanent, it can be managed effectively with hearing aids. Lifestyle Hearing Solutions can help you connect with answers for your hearing challenges, so if you have noticed a recent change to how you hear reach out to us today.