Does The Brain Affect Your Ability to Hear?

A group of researchers has found a new source for what they believe may the cause of a great deal of age-related hearing loss: Problems with the brain. An increasing number of subtle problems have been identified in the ways our brains process information as we age. As a result, a senior could have no physical problems with his or her inner ears but may have problems hearing a conversation anyway due to an aging brain.

In addition to earlier findings of a specific type of "timing" problem that limits our hearing as we age, this group has identified increasing evidence of "feedback" in the brain that diminishes our ability to hear.

Usually, the brain does a great job of filtering, sorting and making sense of the wide range of information that flows through our senses every day. Our brain stem sorts the bluster of information in ways that make it easy for us to carry on our lives. Often, it's this ability of the brain, not hearing itself, that is diminished in older people who say they don't hear well.

The loss is detected most markedly in tests that measure a person's ability to hear a sentence amid a background of babble, much as one might hear at a party while trying to speak to an individual nearby. A feedback problem recently discovered in mice is central to this problem, researchers said. In fact, brain problems usually precede actual hearing difficulties. Also, early problems with the brain's feedback system make the ears more vulnerable to damage. Without the brain's filtering capacity, the ears are more likely to be exposed to damaging noise.

The brain's ability to provide proper feedback to the ear, by filtering out unwanted and unnecessary information, declines beginning in our 40s and 50s. Without that filter, a person is quickly overcome by a barrage of information that is difficult to sort, according to the study.

But you may be one of those people, like I am, who believe age is only a number and that your health isn't predetermined by the pages of a calendar. There are many things you can do slow the effects of aging that are safe and healthy for you.

EurekAlert February 22, 2005

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