Your hearing loss may be a more serious problem

By: Bel Marra Health | Hearing Health | Friday, November 03, 2017 - 04:30 AM

If you have difficulties hearing, you may think that the problem is with your ears. Research suggests that your ears may not actually be to blame and that it could be stemming from your brain. The findings come from researchers at the University of Maryland. They uncovered that your difficulties hearing may be an issue in the brain that typically occurs in older adults, which makes it difficult to follow speech when there is background noise present.

If you have difficulties hearing, you may think that the problem is with your ears. Research suggests that your ears may not actually be to blame and that it could be stemming from your brain. The findings come from researchers at the University of Maryland. They uncovered that your difficulties hearing may be an issue in the brain that typically occurs in older adults, which makes it difficult to follow speech when there is background noise present.

The researchers found that older adults aged 61 to 73 with normal hearing scored significantly worse on tests measuring understanding speech in noisy environments.

The researchers consider this problem the “cocktail party problem,” where the brain’s ability to focus on speech in a noisy environment becomes impaired. The research requires the integration of speech science, neuroscience and cognitive science, electrical engineering, biology, and systems science.

The study participants underwent two different types of scans to measure brain electrical activity when a person was listening to speech. The researchers also explored what brain activity occurred when participants were asked what someone was saying in both quiet and noisy environments.

The areas of the brain that were the study’s focus included the midbrain areas and the cortex.

In younger participants, the midbrain area generated a signal that matched the task. In older participants, the quality of this signal was heavily degraded in both noisy and quiet environments. This reveals that older participants have greater difficulty following speech.

Researcher Alessandro Presacco explained, “Part of the comprehension problems experienced by older adults in both quiet and noise conditions could be linked to age-related imbalance between excitatory and inhibitory neural processes in the brain. This imbalance could impair the brain’s ability to correctly process auditory stimuli and could be the main cause of the abnormally high cortical response observed in our study.”

Fellow researcher Jonathan Z. Simon added, “Older people need more time to figure out what a speaker is saying. They are dedicating more of their resources and exerting more effort than younger adults when they are listening to speech.”

The research helps to further explain the phenomenon of being able to hear others but not being able to understand them.

This problem is seen among older adults because brain function tends to deteriorate as we get older. This has prompted researchers to further investigate if brain training techniques could delay this process to improve speech comprehension in older age.

Simon added, “The older brain just drops part of the speech signal, even if the ears captured it all just fine. When someone can see you speaking, instead of only hearing you, their visual system can sometimes make up for that loss.”

Anderson concluded, “The main message is that the older adults in our study have normal hearing as measured on an audiogram, yet they have difficulty understanding speech in noise because the timing aspects of the speech signal are not being accurately encoded. Because they have normal hearing, talking louder does not help. So if someone is having trouble understanding you in a noisy restaurant or in a crowded room, it is most important to speak clearly at a normal or slightly slower than normal rate. Your older loved ones will appreciate this courtesy during the upcoming holidays!”

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Related Reading:

Temporary hearing loss (temporary threshold shift): Causes and treatments

How to treat sensorineural hearing loss: Causes, symptoms, and diagnosis

Sources:

https://www.physiology.org/doi/10.1152/jn.00373.2016

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