Successful communication depends on a series of complex interactions between sensory, cognitive and social abilities that all come together at once. All of those capabilities, and how they interrelate, change with age. This post touches on some of the important age-related phenomena contributing to the difficulty in understanding speech in noisy environments – and how technology is addressing this issue.
First of all, our hearing changes. It is estimated that one out of every three people, aged 65 and over, has some form of clinical hearing loss, and that this number jumps to 1 out of 2 for people aged 75 and over. Classic age-related hearing loss involves the inability to make out sounds in the higher frequency ranges. In quiet settings, most people with this kind of high-tone loss have no problem understanding speech because their ability to hear low-frequency sounds suffices. But, in noisy situations, background noise masks the low-frequency sounds, making regular speech hard to hear. The hearing-impaired lose all the nuance present in the high-frequency ranges.
Second, our ability to separate different sounds is also affected. Auditory resolution deteriorates with age (similar to our vision becoming less focused) meaning that older people lose the ability to differentiate between individual speakers.
Third, as we get older, we lose our ability to block out unwanted signals and reduced memory also has an effect on our ability to understand speech, especially in noisy environments.
For all these reasons, and more, hearing deteriorates with age. However, there are now technologies that can adjust speech and noise levels to compensate for hearing loss. A 4dB improvement in the Signal to Noise Ratio (SNR) can lead to hearing performance comparable to that of younger people. A technology to watch, for example, is Focused Hearing, which has reported SNR improvement in the double digits.
Targeting our thinking to the older generation is of major importance today. As medical science improves, we are living longer and healthier lives. People in their seventies and beyond enjoy unprecedented quality of life with many and varied opportunities for social interaction. As hearing professionals, that’s what we’re all about – successful communication, anywhere and anytime!