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Hearing and the aging process

hearing and agingChanges that occur in our sense of hearing are probably more of a result of exposure to noise rather than the effects of aging. Research has continued to demonstrate that exposure to a lot of noise over time damages your hearing severely.  However, there are some changes in hearing that occur as people age regardless of whether they have been exposed to loud noise or not. 

Both hearing and balance are affected to some degree by the aging process.  These changes occur because some of the structures inside of the ear which assist in the hearing process and for providing balance deteriorate slightly.  Ear wax also tends to accumulate and interfere with an individualís hearing as they age. 

As people age they began to notice that they cannot hear high-pitched sounds as well as they did when they were younger.  They may notice that high-pitched sounds such as violins or flute music have lost some of their brightness.  Or they may have trouble understanding what women or children are saying.  They usually do not have as much difficulty understanding men because of the lower tone quality associated with most menís voices. 

Some older people complain that people are always mumbling and that it seems that when other people speak even loudly, the words are still difficult to comprehend. This is also usually associated with their difficulty in hearing high-pitched sounds.  Most consonants, such as c, k, p, s, and t, are closed, quick, high-pitch sounds.  The vowels are open, longer, and are much more lower pitched.  As a result, many older people hear vowels much better than consonants. Consonants are sounds that are fundamental to helping people identify words.  When an individual is unable to hear consonants well, it sounds as if the person speaking is not pronouncing their words clearly and the meaning is frequently lost.  Speaking loudly does not usually help because it tends to accentuate the vowels, and not the consonants. 

Another difficulty associated with hearing among older individuals is their difficulty hearing in loud places or in groups with significant background noise. These situations may be helped by having hearing aids.  Hearing aids can help people with hearing loss to hear much better and remain much more functional in their everyday lives.

Information from The Merck Manual of Health and Aging

Webpage and additional information by Paul Susic MA Licensed Psychologist Ph.D Candidate Clinical Director  Senior Care Psychological Consulting.

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