Latest posts by Dr. Maria Wynens, Au.D. (see all)
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It probably doesn’t surprise you to learn that our hearing changes as we age. In fact, because much hearing loss is noise induced and cumulative, it is the most pronounced hearing issue associated with aging. But our hearing changes in other ways as well. New Canadian research is showing that aging alters our ability to filter out background noise, making us more sensitive to intrusive sounds and affecting our acuity with focus and following speech.
New Research Emerging
A team at Canada’s Western University studied how adults tune into sounds in an auditory environment, looking at subject groups in their 20s and in their 60s. The research tracked responses to complex sound environments, like concerts, where both loud and soft sounds were present.
Younger subjects in their 20s demonstrated auditory flexibility, filtering out irrelevant softer sounds and concentrating on music or direct conversation. The older group had a much different reaction to the same sounds. For older study participants, soft and loud sounds competed for attention and it was harder to prioritize the sounds in the environment. Researchers designated this response as an over-sensitivity to sound and it can directly play into the way we hear as we age.
Over-Sensitivity to Sound
An over-sensitivity to sound can result in changes to our social behavior, sometimes in ways similar to hearing loss. A decreased ability to prioritize important sounds and an increased level of distraction by background noises can dramatically change the way we experience and appreciate the world around us.
Over-sensitivity, for instance, can make big social and public events frustrating rather than enjoyable. It can affect attention and concentration, and leave a person feeling irritated by intrusive noises rather than immersed in the activity. Similarly, over-sensitivity can make spaces more confusing to navigate as different sounds vie for attention. As a result, over-sensitivity to sound can make social activities less enjoyable, and makes over-sensitive people more prone to avoid noisy environments.
Hearing Loss and Social Activity
Hearing loss also can result in changing social behavior. Untreated hearing loss makes it harder to comprehend others, especially in locations that are loud and noisy. It can also make familiar activities feel lackluster and new places feel disorienting. Hearing difficulty often negatively impacts our experiences in the world and makes them more difficult to participate in.
Like over-sensitivity, this side effect of hearing loss can result in a drop off in our social activities. Places, events and occasions that were once a part of our life and community may fall to the wayside because of hearing loss.
Hearing Loss and Social Isolation
When our social mobility and activity is curtailed by hearing loss, it makes us more susceptible to isolation, depression and anxiety. Isolation is a condition where social ties to friends, family and community are severed and can cause physical and mental health issues.
Social isolation can encourage depression and anxiety as well as serious cognitive problems like dementia. The lack of mobility and connection that isolation results from makes it difficult to break out of. Isolation can be the result of anxieties produced by hearing loss, conditioning a person away from social activity.
Over-Sensitivity and Hearing Loss
Unfortunately, being over-sensitive to sound doesn’t negate hearing loss. The two conditions are often found together. Over-sensitivity simply means that it is difficult to prioritize the sounds you hear, while hearing loss means that your ability to hear a full range of sound is significantly reduced.
The two conditions can operate in conjunction with each other, making compromised hearing even more challenging in noisy locations. Increased over-sensitivity to sound as we age may explain some of why adapting to hearing aids and assistive devices can initially be challenging and might shape the way hearing technology is approached moving forward.
Atlanta Hearing Doctor
It is important to care for your hearing as you age and stay on top of issues such as hearing loss and over-sensitivity. How do you start? Atlanta Hearing Doctor is ready to help you set up your first appointment. Regular hearing exams help find and address issues early, before deeper problems can take root. At Atlanta Hearing Doctor we focus on your personalized hearing care from comprehensive testing to tailored hearing solutions, we’re ready to get your hearing health on track, so contact us today!