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Understanding Speech. Is it My Hearing or Am I Getting Old?


Is it My Hearing or Am I Getting Old?

Age-related hearing loss is one of the most common conditions affecting older adults. Hearing loss can impact a person’s ability to understand and interpret speech, which impairs their ability to communicate. As a result, as we age our ability to communicate becomes more difficult.

When an older person asks us to repeat something we just said, we often assume that they are struggling to understand our speech due to hearing loss. Although this may often the case, a new study shows that difficulty in understanding speech may be due to the effects of aging on the brain, occurring in cases where no hearing loss exists.

University of Maryland researchers Alessandro Presacco, Jonathan Simon, and Samira Anderson published a new study in the Journal of Neurophysiology demonstrating the effects of aging on understanding speech.

In this study, two groups of adults with clinically normal hearing experienced a series of tests that checked their comprehension of speech against background noise. One group was comprised of 17 younger adults (aged 18-27 years) and the other group was comprised of 15 older adults (aged 61-73 years). The tests that the groups were given also tested mid-brain and cortical activity in response to speech in a variety of different environments (i.e. with ambient background noise, multiple people talking simultaneously in the same language, and multiple people talking simultaneously in an incomprehensible language).

The researchers found that overall, the older group had more difficulty interpreting speech, especially if there was a distracting noise in the background, such as a person speaking in the same language. The younger group’s ability to understand speech was also affected by distracting background noise, but to a lesser degree than the older group.

These results suggest that neural processing of speech is strongly affected by the informational content of noise. Additionally, as we age, our ability to process and understand speech declines – especially in distractingly noisy environments. The decline is unrelated to hearing loss and can occur even in the presence of no hearing loss.

Often, we will hear an older person say that they can hear us, but cannot “understand” us. This cognitive decline gives an explanation as to why that is the case. Older individuals with normal hearing may be able to hear you, but their brains struggle to keep up with what is being said.

Co-author of the University of Maryland study Jonathan Simon suggests that older people need more time to figure out what a speaker is saying because their brains have to exert more effort than younger adults. When talking to an older person with normal hearing struggles to understand speech, talking louder is not always a better solution. If someone is having trouble understanding you in a noisy environment, speak to them at a normal volume while facing them directly.

Although some older adults struggle to understand speech due to cognitive decline, the inability to understand speech can lead to a lower quality of life. Inability to communicate often leads to feelings of isolation and depression. Before ruling out hearing loss, get a hearing test performed by a hearing care professional.

Noise-induced Hearing Loss

What is Noise-induced hearing loss?

Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is a permanent hearing impairment that is a direct result of over-exposure to loud noise. Hearing loss is caused by irreversible damage to the inner ear and results in poor hearing capabilities.

In the past 20 years, hearing loss has become more common in the younger generations. Some have suggested that this rise in hearing loss in younger populations is in part due to the rise in availability and mobility of devices such as phones, music players, and earphones.

Causes of Noise-induced hearing loss

Noise-induced hearing loss is caused by overexposure to loud noises, or sounds. Not all sounds damage our hearing. The volume of a sound and the length of exposure determines whether or not a sound is detrimental to our hearing.

The scientific measure of the volume of a sound is by its “intensity,” which is quantified by a logarithmic decibel (dB) scale that is referenced by the quietest sound (0 dB) a human ear can hear. The louder the sound, the higher the decibel measure.

Sounds at or below 90 dB (lawn mower, street traffic) are relatively safe for extended periods of time (approximately 8 hours). However, sounds at 100 dB (chainsaw or snowmobile) are safe for a maximum of only 2 hours a day. Sounds at 115 dB (loud rock concert) should only be endured for 15 minutes per day without protection.

Effects of Noise-induced hearing loss

Hearing loss effects people in a number of different physical and psychological ways. Those with hearing loss often struggle to participate in daily conversation, regular social activities, and entertainment such as music or movies. Since noise-induced hearing loss develops over a number of years, individuals often think nothing is wrong with their hearing and instead blame others for mumbling. Inability to participate in daily activities and social gatherings often lead to feelings of isolation and depression.

How is Noise-induced hearing loss diagnosed?

Noise-induced hearing loss painlessly develops over the period of several years. As a result, many people in danger of losing their hearing do not realize it until it is too late. Tinnitus – ringing in the ear – is a common early warning sign of hearing loss. However, noise-induced hearing loss is formally diagnosed through a “hearing test” performed by a hearing care professional such as an otolaryngologist.


As we get older, our hearing inevitably declines. However, there are steps you can take to prevent hearing damage. Wearing hearing protection such as earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones in noisy vehicles, at concerts, or in a loud work environments will help reduce your chances of losing your hearing. When listening to music, opt for speakers and headphones instead of earbuds and keep the volume to a maximum of 60%.

Treatment of Noise-induced hearing loss

Although noise-induced hearing loss currently has no known cure, hearing impairments can be assisted through hearing devices such as hearing aids and implants. Hearing aids do not permanently “fix” the impairment but they offer individuals with hearing loss a way to reclaim their lives. Modern hearing aids are now easy to conceal and enable those with hearing loss to communicate and participate in social interactions.

Hearing Loss in the Workplace

Hearing loss due to noise-exposure is not always considered to be too much of a threat, especially by younger generations. The possibility of damaging your hearing due to the noises around them may seem unlikely. They go to concerts and loud events without ear protection, and don’t think that will have any effect on them further down the road. But in fact, many people who’ve been exposed to large amounts of loud noise for years are now suffering from serious damage. The most common instance of this? Work-related hearing loss.

It may be surprising to some that hearing loss is one of the most common injuries related to the workplace. But when you consider the millions of construction workers, miners, carpenters, staff at large venues, musicians, and many others, it makes a lot of sense. Even jobs that are not known for being particularly noisy can affect employees’ hearing, as long as they are exposed to the same levels of noise for an extended period of time and don’t protect their ears. Granted, some of these lines of work have specific rules and regulations to limit noise levels. But those rules can only do so much, and when someone’s been doing the same job for years and decades, even low amounts of noise can accumulate damage.

One major factor that influences these workplace injuries is the idea of educating the employees on protecting their hearing. If employees are not told to wear ear protection, or are made aware of what long-term noise exposure can do to their health, then they’ll have no incentive to protect their hearing. Ear protection is often not seen as necessary, but for some workers, it could be the difference between painful suffering, or happy and healthy hearing. Therefore, to keep them from taking off their ear protection, or not wearing it at all, it’s best to train and teach them just how important it is. And companies need to see it that way, as well- giving every employee hearing education and protection may seem to expensive, but in the long run, it helps to insure the health and well-being of all of their employees.

Thankfully, some changes in technology and regulations imply that things may be changing. There are a lot of advancements in medicine towards the prevention and treatment of hearing loss. And there are now certain devices with the technology to alert their users if the noise levels around them have become dangerous. The Center for Disease Control also has a database of tools with quieter sound levels. If companies invest in quieter machines and work to eliminate noise in the workplace, the overall effect will be extremely beneficial.

This technology may be expensive for some small companies to invest in right now, but as the demand increases, it will likely become more affordable and more prominent in the workplace. Companies just have to take the time to educate themselves and their employees on the importance of taking care of your hearing. And an investment in quieter tools, training, and ear protection is completely worth it to preserve a worker’s health and hearing capabilities.

Noise Induced Hearing Loss

While many people are aware of the severity of noise-induced hearing loss, fewer actually know how common it is. Hearing loss induced by listening to overly loud music has been found in about 15 percent of teenagers and is suspected to increase with time.

Noise-induced hearing loss, or NIHL, usually shows itself in adolescents through a sharp ringing in their ears after listening to loud music. This phantom ringing is called tinnitus, and is connected to inner ear damage and hearing disabilities. Although most adolescents who notice this ringing don’t think at first that it’s a long-lasting problem, the continued exposure of high volume music can greatly damage an individual’s hearing.

According to research by the American Osteopathic Association, listening to music at full volume for a little over an hour can lead to hearing loss. This amount of noise exposure can compete with the high volume of a rock concert, and wouldn’t normally be too much to worry about. The bigger issue is that most adolescents listen to music for several hours a day through headphones and earbuds. Without proper regulation, it is possible to induce serious and unrepairable damage to your hearing simply by listening to loud music on a regular basis.

Thankfully, there are ways to prevent NIHL. First, you should make sure to limit yourself to listening to music for an hour a day and at a maximum of 60 percent volume. If you lower the volume, you can listen for longer and compromise for when you think you’re going to be listening. Other ways that you can prevent NIHL is by listening to normal speakers instead of earbuds or headphones, choosing headphones over earbuds, and using noise reducing headphones.

Regardless of what options you choose to prevent noise-induced hearing loss, make sure to always stay aware of the signs of hearing loss and be ready to consult a professional if you suspect any damage.

Donating Hearing Aids

Anyone who’s owned or been familiar with hearing aids, eyeglasses, and similar devices know that they can be quite expensive. So you may be hesitant to possibly throw away your previous glasses, your grandma’s old hearing aids, and etc. without putting them to any more use. But don’t worry- there are actually several options for you to donate these things so that those who need them can benefit.

As far as hearing aids go, these are especially expensive, so donating can be extremely helpful to those who can’t afford brand new, custom ones. There are a few great organizations/ programs available for this. The Lions HARP program (Hearing Aid Recycling Program) is a nonprofit that gives refurbished hearing aids to those who can’t afford them otherwise. Similarly, health care provider Hear More Canada has a program- the Help Others Hear More Hearing Aid Bank. Seek out some of these programs when you have old hearing aids from yourself or relatives that no longer need them. You can greatly help those in need in this way.

For eyeglasses, the Lions Club also has a way for you to donate. All you have to do is find your local LERC (Lions Eyeglass Recycling Center) and drop off your old glasses. Volunteers will take over from there and give them to those who need them, in communities that normally can’t afford them. Other type of medical equipment and aides you may have, like wheelchairs, walkers, and etc. can be donated as well. You can give these to several different kinds of organizations, or even stores like Goodwill. The Canadian Red Cross will also gladly accept equipment of that kind, as well as canes, shower chairs, and more.

Better TV Sound For Those With Hearing Loss

One of the biggest day-to-day problems that those with hearing loss experience is the difficulty to understand what’s being said, and not just in face-to-face conversation. Dialogue on your television may be especially hard to hear, with background noise in your home, poor-quality speakers, or just bad sound design within the show itself. Thankfully, modern TVs have a lot of options for you to try and improve your experience.

Some televisions have a pre-set option to enhance the dialogue, which may be exactly what you’re looking for. Go through your settings and try to find anywhere you can turn up the dialogue audio and turn down the background noise. If your TV doesn’t have this option pre-set, try doing it manually. Turn up the mid and upper range frequencies, and turn down the bass.

Either in addition to or instead of adjusting your audio, there are always closed captions to consider. Your TV should have the option of fairly good closed captions, and especially when it comes to streaming services, these captions have become very accurate and helpful in recent years.

But if you still really want to hear the dialogue, look into some wireless headphones, or consider a more surround-sound speaker system. Bringing the audio output closer to you can help you hear and understand it. Just be sure that if you’re using headphones, you don’t turn up the volume too loud so that it can further damage your hearing.

When trying to understand what’s being said on your TV, turning it up to max volume doesn’t always help you. This may make it even harder to distinguish dialogue from background noise. Try several different technological adjustments, and also try to limit other noises around your home. This way you can focus on understanding the conversations, and not try to comprehend several different types of sound at once.

Hearing Aids for Children

About 3 out of 1000 children in the United States are born deaf or with some degree of hearing loss. Other children develop hearing loss later in life through ear infections or exposure to loud noise. If your child has been diagnosed with hearing loss, you will be presented a number of options for treatment, including speech and language therapy, hearing aids, and cochlear implants.

Hearing the world is critical to the development of a child’s brain. Children learn language and cognitive functions through the words and noises they hear as well as the sound of their own voice. Hearing abilities greatly influence social skills and academic performance. Consistent hearing also helps infants and toddlers bond with their parents and build a foundation for familial and environmental trust.

Most children with hearing loss benefit from hearing aids, but some need cochlear implants. A hearing test performed by an audiologist or hearing care professional will help determine what type of hearing device your child will need. The type of hearing device strongly depends on the severity of the hearing loss and the structure of the outer ear.

However, the majority of children are fitted with “behind-the-ear” hearing aids. These BTE’s are securely fitted, one of the most comfortable designs, and can be easily replaced as the child quickly grows in size. To be fitted, an impression of the outer ear is taken by a hearing care professional. The impression takes a few minutes to set, so a parent usually holds the child for some time. The molds of the hearing aids can be a variety of colors, but are usually clear or translucent.

After the hearing aids are ready, a preliminary fitting and adjustment is made by an audiologist. After a few days or weeks of wearing the hearing aids and adjusting to them, follow-up visits are made to make changes and ensure the satisfaction of the child.

Hearing Loss Affects The Whole Family

Hearing loss does not just affect your hearing, it affects your ability to communicate and your daily behavior. Difficulties in communication not only hinder our social lives, but our familial lives as well. When a family member has hearing loss, the entire family is affected. Daily conversation and interaction create relationship stress.

When humans are around family members, their communication skills tend to become more relaxed than when they are at work or in a social setting. Sometimes we may speak while facing away from someone we are talking to or yell across the house. Although these tendencies are natural human behavior, they can create problems between members of the family.

Family communication is vital. When we do not communicate effectively, family members may say to the speaker “What?” when they cannot understand someone. This response often frustrates the speaker because they have to repeat themselves. Instead of saying “What?” when you cannot hear someone, respond “I don’t understand what you’re saying.” This reply gives the speaker a chance to modify what they’re saying and helps circumvent the frustration of repeating oneself.

Drama often ensues when a family member with hearing loss forgets to put in their hearing aids. Without the devices, having conversations can be nearly impossible, leading to more frustration. When a family member has hearing loss, politely remind them that you will talk with them after they wear their hearing aids. However, family members without hearing loss should always respect the individual with hearing loss and be forgiving when they make a mistake. Reacting with anger towards having to repeat yourself does not address the problem at hand and may only lead to more relationship stress. Acceptance is the quickest route to effective communication and understanding. A family that communicates well is a family that stays happy.

3 Things to Know about Hearing Aids

Visiting an audiologist, getting an official hearing test, and purchasing hearing aids are all big steps in taking back control over your life. These actions demonstrate your ability to acknowledge your hearing impairment and be proactive about it.

Especially for older adults, hearing aids greatly improve quality of life and daily routine. Social activities are no longer agonizing, movies at the cinema can be more easily enjoyed, and you do not have to keep asking “What did you say?” at family gatherings. Before you enjoy these benefits of hearing aids, consider these three key things to know about hearing aids to maximize your experience.

1. Hearing aids are a constantly evolving process that requires tuning and modification. That is why it is critical to go each follow-up visit with your hearing care professional. After the initial molding and fitting, your audiologist will ask you to wear the hearing aids for some time. After this allotted time, you should come back to the audiologist to report how the hearing aids are working for you – that way the audiologist can adjust and fine-tune the hearing aids to meet your needs.

2. Success with hearing aids requires patience and trial and error. Hearing aids are a valuable investment. If you have spent a decent amount of time and money in the process of getting hearing aids, it is important to follow the instructions of the audiologist to maximize their use. Wear the hearing aids no matter what – it will take time to adjust to them.

3. Schedule appointments with your hearing care professional to do maintenance on the devices. Hearing aids get dirty very easily due to oil and cerumen (earwax) buildup and may require periodic maintenance by an audiologist. Earwax in a microphone or in an earpiece can damage a hearing aid and short out the device. To maximize the operation of a hearing aid, get it regularly cleaned.

Protecting Your Ears in the Summertime

Protecting your hearing during the summer may not be something you’ve thought about before, but it’s an important precaution that will keep your hearing healthy. The loud noises of summer sporting events, concerts, and firework displays can be more damaging than you may think. And if you have hearing aids, summer brings new challenges of heat and humidity that you have to watch out for. But don’t stress- there are countless ways to keep yourself healthy and protect your hearing during the warmer months.

If you plan on attending festivals, concerts, baseball games, and etc.- always bring earplugs with you. This will help to prevent noise-exposure hearing loss, as well as tinnitus. In general, know where you’re going and how loud it’s going to be. If you know your hearing is sensitive, keep your distance from the source of the noise, or try and limit your time there.

When it comes to summer activities, be aware of your ears while doing things like mowing the lawn or using power tools. After swimming at the pool, be sure your ears are completely dry to prevent swimmer’s ear. Don’t set off fireworks at your home- instead go watch them from a distance and allow professionals to do them safely.

And if you have hearing aids, be on the lookout for the extra moisture and humidity in the air during summer. Clean and dry your hearing aids each night. If you are going somewhere like the beach, consider special protective wear that goes over your hearing aids to keep the water off. As far as heat goes- never leave your hearing aids in a hot place or out in the sun. The plastic around them will melt or warp, so always be sure to keep them in the shade.

Summer brings a long list of challenges to protecting your hearing, but you can overcome them if you always take precautions, and look after yourself. In the end, you’ll enjoy summer just as much as you would have, but with healthier hearing.