Older adults may be better at listening than most assume, study finds

TORONTO, Ontario — Think carefully the next time you want to mutter something under your breath around grandma or grandpa – they just might hear you. Older adults may be much better at listening and hearing in noisy, hectic environments than most assume, according to researchers from Western University and the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care.

Study authors say that older adults may process and enjoy conversations in loud, crowded places (like busy restaurants and crowded parties) more efficiently than prior research suggests. If an older adult can indeed hear well in such places, that would also mean a greater overall quality of life, a better ability to form meaningful connections, less social isolation, and lower dementia risk.

The scientific consensus for some time has been that older adults are less able to use speech glimpses than their younger counterparts. Researchers define a speech glimpse as an individual using the speech they hear more clearly during brief reductions in background noise to help better understand conversations in noisy areas.

This latest research, however, indicates that this may actually only prove true for “relatively boring, disconnected, and unnatural sentences used in lab settings” – not natural speech and discussions. Put another way, the average older adult may be better at listening to speech in noisy, everyday situations than previously thought.

Nothing keeps older adults from hearing good stories

Study authors had both younger and older adult participants listen to either engaging stories or disconnected sentences without a clear topic (“Smoky fires lack flame and heat”). Meanwhile, as people listened, the team added two kinds of background noise: one that varied in volume, facilitating glimpses, and one that did not vary whatsoever.

Researchers also routinely stopped the speech and background noise to ask participants about what they had heard and understood thus far. Then, they calculated the overall number of correctly heard words for each participant.

This process led to the finding that when it comes to more natural, everyday speech older adults did in fact benefit greatly from speech glimpses. Notably, in this case older participants appeared to benefit just as much as, or more than, younger adults. However, older adults benefitted far less when listening to disconnected sentences.

“These results suggest that older adults may be better at listening in noisy social settings than has long been thought. Our study also highlights the importance of cognitive and motivational factors for speech understanding. Older adults who do not perform well on listening tasks in lab settings may do better in real-life settings,” says senior study author Dr. Björn Herrmann, Baycrest’s Canada Research Chair in Auditory Aging and a scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute, in a media release.

The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.


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