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As a hearing professional, we often have patients that simply cannot understand speech, even with state of the art hearing aids. People with normal hearing can also have problems understanding speech.
A recent study helps explain this problem. Researchers from the University of Maryland wanted to learn why older adults often have difficulty following speech while in a situation with background noise. For this study, they used two groups of people with normal hearing. One group was around 22 years old and the other was around 65. Both groups were given speech comprehension tests both in quiet and in noise much like a restaurant. Tests measuring both mid-brain and cortical activity were also performed. Through these tests, it was found that it was more difficult for the older people to process speech compared to the younger adults, whether there was background noise present or not. When measuring mid-brain and cortical activity neural deficits were found in the older study group. It was concluded that the human brain’s ability to process and understand speech declines as we age. One’s speech understanding appears to be unrelated to hearing loss and can occur even when the person has completely normal hearing.
The University of Wisconsin in Madison has been studying a group of people from Beaver Dam. This study known as the Beaver Dam Offspring Study has 2783 participants. Of those, 686 participants had normal hearing. Despite having normal hearing, 12% of them reported that they were having hearing difficulties.
Unfortunately, the decline in understanding speech is normal as brain function erodes through the aging process. When one cannot understand speech with normal hearing, turning up the volume or raising your voice will not help. It is more important to speak slower, and clearer, while looking at the person so they can consciously or unconsciously read lips. Closed captioning on the television and telephones with captions will help as well. Since background noise seems to be a big problem with understanding, try to keep family gatherings quieter than normal and choose quiet restaurants if you go out to eat. Turn off any extra fans while trying to converse—this will allow for better focus on the spoken word.
As one’s speech understanding declines, it can lead to sadness, depression, and social isolation. If you are having understanding problems, have your hearing evaluated by your local hearing professional. Speech tests can be performed to see how well you understand speech in both quiet and in noise. If you have a hearing loss, hearing aids may be recommended. If so it will be important for you to get hearing aids that can filter out background noise and as well as speech babble. Hearing aids with wireless connectivity can also put the speech from the TV, the Cell-Phone, and mini-microphones right into your ear—putting the speech in front of the noise. These types of hearing aid features will give you the best chance of understanding in noise.
Information for this article came from http://www.healthyhearing.com/report/52709-New-study-shows-why-older-adults-often-struggle-to-understand-speech