How Music May Help Ward Off Hearing Loss As We Age

Aug 21, 2011
Originally published on August 23, 2011 6:50 am

Older people often have difficulty understanding conversation in a crowd. Like everything else, our hearing deteriorates as we age.

There are physiological reasons for this decline: We lose tiny hair cells that pave the way for sound to reach our brains. We lose needed neurons and chemicals in the inner ear, reducing our capacity to hear.

So how can you help stave off that age-related hearing loss? Try embracing music early in life, research suggests.

"If you spend a lot of your life interacting with sound in an active manner, then your nervous system has made lots of sound-to-meaning connections" that can strengthen your auditory system, says Nina Kraus, director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University.

Musicians focus extraordinary attention on deciphering low notes from high notes and detecting different tonal qualities. Kraus has studied younger musicians and found that their hearing is far superior to that of their non-musician counterparts.

So Kraus wondered: Could that musical training also help fend off age-related hearing loss? To find out, she assembled a small group of middle-aged musicians and non musicians, aged 45-65. She put both groups through a series of tests measuring their ability to make out and repeat a variety of sentences spoken in noisy background environments.

Turns out, the musicians were 40 percent better than non-musicians at tuning out background noise and hearing the sentences, as Kraus reported in PloS ONE. The musicians were also better able to remember the sentences than the non-musicians — and that made it easier for them to follow a line of conversation. After all, Kraus says, in order to listen to a friend in a noisy restaurant, you need to be able to recall what was said a few seconds ago in order to make sense of what you're hearing right now.

The take-home message: If you're an older musician, don't stop playing. And if you gave it up, it may be time to dust off the old violin.

As for picking up an instrument for the first time in mid-life, there's no evidence yet that it can help maintain hearing. But the world of rodents offers some hope: One recent study found that intense auditory training of older rats resulted in significant improvement in their ability to recognize high-pitched sounds. It also boosted their levels of brain chemicals crucial for hearing.

Of course, rats' ears, though similar to humans, are not the same. More research is needed to find out if old human ears can also be taught new tricks.

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Well, it is true that like much else, our hearing declines as we get older. Understanding conversations in a crowd can become particularly challenging. Now, scientists are finding activities that might prevent some of that hearing loss and even reverse the damage.

Here's NPR's Patti Neighmond.

PATTI NEIGHMOND: It starts with difficulty hearing high- frequency sounds.

Dr. SANDRA GORDON-SALANT (University of Maryland): Consonants such as S, or sss, a tuh sound. Sss. Vuh. Kuh.

NEIGHMOND: Sandra Gordon-Salant is an audiologist at the University of Maryland. She says tiny hair cells and neurons that deliver sound to the brain begin to deteriorate and die off as we age.

Dr. GORDON-SALANT: So if somebody said think and you can't hear the T-H, you don't know if they said think; you don't know if they said sink, blink.

NEIGHMOND: Then our ability to detect bits of silence between sounds begins to fail, and it's hard to keep up when someone's talking fast. It's all exacerbated in noisy environments - a crowded restaurant, for example - where you can easily be distracted by all the background chatter.

Dr. GORDON-SALANT: And especially if the information is interesting, you know. So somebody says your name, or somebody says the name of somebody you know and says a piece of juicy information - your attention is going to be distracted to that background babble.

NEIGHMOND: Nina Kraus says this is one of the most common complaints of older adults. Kraus is a neurobiologist who directs the Auditory Neuroscience Lab at Northwestern University. In earlier research, she found younger people who played musical instruments had much better hearing than non-musicians - a result, she says, of highly focused attention to the subtle differences of sound.

Dr. NINA KRAUS (Northwestern University): For example, the sound quality of the same note is different depending on whether it is played with a plucked or a bowed string.

NEIGHMOND: After years of this kind of training, musicians strengthen their ability to distinguish high and low frequencies, different tones, and even bits of silence between sounds. So Kraus wondered if musical training might help prevent age-related hearing loss. She put musicians and non-musicians between the ages of 45 and 65 to the test, asking them to repeat a variety of sentences like this...

Dr. KRAUS: The young boy left home.

NEIGHMOND: Then with some moderate chatter.

(Soundbite of crosstalk)

NEIGHMOND: And finally with some pretty loud background babble.

(Soundbite of crosstalk)

NEIGHMOND: The musicians were 40 percent better than the non-musicians at tuning out the background noise and hearing the sentence. Kraus also found the musicians were able to remember the sentences better, which helped them follow a line of conversation.

Dr. KRAUS: In order to listen to your friend in a noisy restaurant, you need to remember what he said a few seconds ago in order to be able to make sense of what he's saying right now.

NEIGHMOND: So if you're an older musician, Kraus says don't stop playing. And if you used to play, try dusting off the violin or piano.

There's no evidence yet that starting to play an instrument in midlife will help maintain hearing, but neurobiologist Donald Caspary says animal studies have been promising. In one, researchers trained young and old rats to identify a distinct but somewhat subtle sound.

Dr. DONALD CASPARY (Neurobiologist): So you had a series of tone pips - beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep - and a higher one. And the rats were trained to identify the higher ones. It took the older rats longer to learn the task, but they did it for an hour a day every day, for a month.

NEIGHMOND: Eventually, all the rats improved their capacity to hear high frequencies. During the experiment, scientists were also able to measure increases in certain chemicals in the rat's brain that are crucial for hearing. Rats' ears are similar to humans but - obviously - not the same, so more study is needed to figure out whether intense musical training might be able to do for human hearing what auditory training seems to do for rats.

Patti Neighmond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.