Dr. Joan Englehart Rodriguez, Au.D., joined Dr. Goldberg’s Suwanee practice in 2007 with 28 years’ experience in clinical audiology. A native of Pennsylvania, she earned her Bachelor of Art degree in Hearing and Speech Sciences from the University of Maryland in 1978 and her Master of Science degree in Audiology from Penn State University in 1979. In 2003 she received her Doctor of Audiology degree (Au.D.) from the Arizona School of Health Sciences.
The perception of sound changes as we age. Our hearing health is gaining prominence in the public health sector. Unfortunately, this is because untreated hearing loss has become a major public health issue and is affecting people of all ages. It is no longer confined to the elderly and the negative stereotypes associated with hearing loss are dissipating.
The nature of our hearing transforms vastly from our young adult years to that of middle age and beyond, is important to distinguish so that we may be able to address our hearing loss appropriately. When we find ourselves in multi-generational settings, such as large family gatherings, it is not uncommon to have to for those of us without hearing loss to have to “speak up” or “turn down” conflicting sounds from the background such as music or a blaring television. We learn at an early age that our elders have difficulty with certain public settings and maintaining conversation in large groups.
How and why the sounds that we receive change over time and become a difficulty for us to process is what we will explore.
Within the brain lies the auditory cortex, which is the mechanism that receives and processes sound information from the cochlear, or sensory organ in our inner ear. As we get older the way our brain responds to sound is with increased sensitivity. This process poses more difficulties as we age, and neuroscientists have explored the phenomenon through research and study.
At the Western University in Canada, people from the ages of 20 up to 60 participated in a study that recorded the responses of their auditory cortex to an array of sounds. The test determined the sensitivity to “soft” and “loud” sounds.
Based on the results, it showed that younger people without hearing loss had the ability to filter out the “soft” or quiet sounds that were deemed irrelevant to their hearing experience.
For example, the sounds we choose to hear that are important to us, such as the conversation we are having to the person we sitting next to at a restaurant, as opposed to the construction outside of the restaurant that becomes just background noise. The ability to discern and filter sounds in this manner depends greatly on the efficiency of the auditory cortex. As the workings of the auditory cortex diminish with time, our sensitivity to all sounds increase.
For the older participants, results showed that whether sounds were “soft” or “loud”, the sensitivity to all of them were heightened. The capacity of to filter out which sounds were important or relevant to the specific needs of the person within that hearing environment were substantially lessened. Unfortunately for those with hearing impairment this results in a cacophony of sounds that can be confusing and constrictive to their social experiences.
Lead author of the study, Björn Herrmann, states: “It’s a fundamental property of the auditory system to be able to adjust really fast to any environment a person goes into. If you cannot do that anymore, then in each situation your auditory system might be a little off. This means older individuals may be easily distracted and overwhelmed by sounds or find them too loud.”
The responses of the older participants showed that a lack of flexibility and adaptability of the auditory cortex to the constantly changing sounds of our environments.
The younger participants we able to switch and filter out sounds that were specific to their needs at the time. As Hermann also states: “When the sound environment is loud, the brain activity in younger adults loses sensitivity to really quiet sounds because they’re not that important. Whereas older individuals still stay sensitive to these relatively quiet sounds, even though they’re not important at the time.”