Slower is Better than Louder for Older Ears

6. Slower is Better than Louder for Older Ears 

HearResponsibly Yours, Musings from a Seasoned Hearing Scientist

It’s only in the last few years that the term Age Related Hearing Loss became common in audiology publications.   Not that diminished hearing late in life is a recent phenomenon, but it was generally known as “presbycusis,” a term that brought ‘older’ together with hearing trouble.   Charts showing how hearing sensitivity declined with each decade of age have long populated textbooks.   But there has been a vast increase in the number of medical specialties devoted to serving the aging population.   Presumably that has largely followed the extended life expectancies and increasingly active demographic of 55+ persons.  ‘Active Aging’ and the enlargement of the “Baby Boomer” generation portion of society has spawned entire new care services and technology.  But what hasn’t changed is the consequence of hearing challenges that may or may not be accompanied by mobility, vision, balance, and memory problems.   

But perhaps underlying all these age-related changes is the ever-so-likely issue of neurological slowing.  While each of has different trajectory of decline, it is for obviously good reasons that athletes cannot be expected to run or swim as fast in their 40s and 50s as when in their youthful 20s.  (That’s why there’s a “Master’s Division” in road races).  Essential changes in neural conductivity, while highly variable, are likely to be manifest in all of us by our 60s.  But what does that have to do with hearing problems?   Well, consider the running family conversations with children hurriedly talking about their newest fashion infatuation, or zipping through animated stories from school.   Speech shoots out like machine guns of word bullets as many as 170 a minute.  And once those word bullets are out, they are instantly gone and rapidly replaced by the next string of spoken thought.  We’re remarkably able to hear and follow up at those delivery rates (more typically 140/minute) – but it requires lots of mental resources to hear, decode, and process both the symbolic, but also the emotional and personal meanings.   Those cognitive resources require blood sugar and healthy, well-tuned nerves.   But we kind of literally lose some of our nerves with advancing age, and the general health of the neural relay system declines.

Children Talking
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If additionally (and predictably) there is even a mild hearing loss, then the work to keep up with fast speech becomes truly exhausting.   [ ‘I  just  need  a  bit  more   time to  keep up with  what  you  are   saying!’]   Good hearing aids help enormously because the first level intake is made more clear, but if we can slow down the incoming stream of speech that needs to be heard and analyzed for meaning, it’s a much less stressful experience. Slow speech is still around 110 words per minute, but not nearly as daunting to the hearing systems of older listeners.  Unfortunately, those who know we have some hearing difficulties often don’t think about adjusting the pace of their speech; they often just hit the ‘Louder” button and don’t think about the crucial speed component.   

Seniors playing pickleball

Slower is especially important for Aging listeners.  Their huge numbers of active seniors playing Pickleball to negotiate the slowing down of leg and arm speed.  Their leagues of “walk only” soccer teams.  How do we get the message that conversations can be enriched by recognizing that slower is a small price for richer conversations. Neural processing & everything else slows with age.  When Dad gets up and moves to the car more slowly than when he was much younger, we wait with patience and respect.  When we address him with news of the family, shouldn’t we speak our love more kindly – and slowly? He’s hearing in the Master’s Division!

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