“How is your dad?” Jeremy asked his boss sitting across the table at a recent dinner party. “He died,” said his partner. “That’s great. Tell him I said hello.”
Jeremy knew something was wrong from the stricken look on everyone’s face. When his wife leaned over and whispered, “He said his father died.” Jeremy wanted to crawl under the table and disappear. He thought his boss said, “He’s fine.”
Jeremy called his doctor the next morning to get his hearing checked. He was only 42, but this was not the first time Jeremy had misunderstood. He was having more trouble hearing in court, making out what his wife said from another room and sometimes even when he was in the same room.
He was surprised when the doctor told him the tests were normal and his hearing was fine. “You just need to pay more attention,” his doctor said.
Jeremy’s struggle to understand in everyday listening situations is not uncommon. Studies over the last 10 years show that changes and deterioration of auditory processing in the brain begins at age 40. These changes are not detectable on a hearing test.
SO WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU TURN 40?
Hearing vs understanding. They are not the same.
Hearing is about loudness. If your hearing goes down, you just make the sound louder, right?
As any wearer of hearing aids knows, making them louder does not make them clearer. Turning up the volume does not mean you are going to understand any better.
Understanding is about processing. Your brain has to sort out, filter and make sense of all the sounds it receives. How does it do that? What does your brain need so you can understand clearly?
Have you ever thought that kids talk too fast? They are on their third sentence and you are still processing the first one. Kids do not talk any faster than they always did. Your temporal processing has slowed down.
The slower your temporal processing, the more time you will need to understand what someone is saying.
When you have difficulty understanding, your brain has to concentrate more and listen harder. You brain is so intensely focused on trying to understand, that it does not have the resources to transfer the information to your memory. Therefore, even if you “get it” your brain cannot store it.
In order to participate in a conversation, especially in a difficult listening environment, your brain has to separate all of the incoming sounds and focus on one of them.
Beginning at around age 40, the brain cannot filter out distracting information as well as it used to. The ability to encode and retrieve words severely erodes in “background babble.”
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
While you cannot change Mother Nature, there are a few things you can do to help you understand more clearly
Increasingly, hearing aids and the lower cost counterparts, PSAP’s (which are not intended to correct hearing but make sound louder) are being fit and worn to use in those distracting and difficult situations or anytime when understanding clearly is a problem.