How the Brain Processes Sound Changes with Age

Many older adults share a similar complaint about eating out; they have a hard time following conversations in a noisy, crowded restaurant.  But this problem may be less about diminished hearing abilities in older age and more about how the brain is processing sound, according to a new study out of Western University in London, Ontario, published in the Journal of Neuroscience

The BrainsCan Study discovered that the aging brain becomes more sensitive to sound and even older adults with normal hearing may have a harder time filtering out irrelevant sounds in the same way younger adults can filter out background noise.  Researchers found that older adults are more sensitive to quiet sounds, even when they are not what the listener is interested in hearing.  This causes many older people to feel annoyed or frustrated trying to carry on a conversation in a loud restaurant, bar or at other noisy gatherings.

The findings of this study may also help to explain why older adults find loud music or very noisy events unpleasant.   And while nearly 40 per cent of people over the age of 50 are affected by some hearing loss, the way the brain processes sound with advancing age is also important to understand.   With funding from the Canada First Research Excellence program, more research is underway to better understand how over-sensitivity to sound in the auditory cortex of older adults affects neurophysiological changes in other areas of the brain.

So, the next time you are planning to take an older adult out for a celebratory lunch or dinner, investigate the general noise level of the restaurant ahead of time.  Large, noisy establishments with little in the way of sound-reducing soft materials, lots of hard surfaces or live entertainment may not be the ideal choice.  Smaller venues with high ceilings and sound deadening material on the walls can make a big difference.   And, if you are trying to have a serious conversation about an important matter, considering saving it to discuss over coffee at home.