Contributed by Debbie Clason, staff writer, Healthy Hearing
If you’ve started dreading the company office meeting or the family get together because it’s just too difficult to understand the conversation, your hearing might benefit from a little computer training. At least that’s the finding from a new study by Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary researchers, which suggests speech-in-noise intelligibility can be improved in some cases by playing specially designed computer games. And while the best treatment for poor hearing is still hearing aids expertly fit by a hearing healthcare professional, the day may come when brain training exercises are part of the hearing loss treatment plan.
According to the Hearing Loss Association of America, approximately 48 million Americans report some degree of hearing loss. The condition is more common among older adults, who often have problems separating speech from other noises in the room, especially in particularly noisy situations such as crowded restaurants. Age-related hearing loss is known as presbycusis and is caused by natural aging of the auditory system.
During the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary study, elderly subjects trained for eight weeks on a closed-loop (CL) computerized audio game which challenged them to listen to subtle changes in sound in order to put together jigsaw puzzles using a touchscreen tablet. The random, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial determined that subjects in the CL training group could correctly identify 25 percent more words in spoken sentences or digital sequences in situations where high levels of background noise were present than those in the placebo group who were asked to rely on word recall without sound to assemble the puzzles.
Hearing is a brain function
Although we hear with our ears, it’s our brain which interprets the information they collect. The study’s findings confirm what scientists know about the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life, known as neuroplasticity, especially as it relates to dealing with background noise.
A recent study conducted at the University of Colorado’s Department of Speech and Language found that left untreated, hearing loss causes the brain to reassign the areas devoted to speech and language to other senses, such as vision or touch. That can lead to brain atrophy, which places those with untreated hearing loss at greater risk of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. The right hemisphere of the brain is responsible for visual information and spatial processing, while our language and speech function is located in the left hemisphere.
Listening training programs
So what’s a senior to do? Have your hearing evaluated annually by a hearing healthcare professional and, if hearing loss is detected and hearing aids are advised, follow the treatment sooner rather than later. Those who wear hearing aids say they enjoy better quality of life than those with untreated hearing loss. This includes relationships with family and friends, emotional wellness, and enjoyment related to social activities and hobbies.
In the meantime, it couldn’t hurt to try a little brain training. If you’re curious what’s involved, check out these these auditory listening training programs:
- LACE (Listening and Communication Enhancement): Developed by audiologists at the University of California at San Francisco, the LACE Auditory Training program is designed to retrain the brain to comprehend speech up to 40 percent better in difficult listening situations. An internet connection is required. Cost for a one-user training program is $79.
- clEARWorks4EARs: Subscription based clEARWorks comes with professional support from an audiologist, either online or in your community. The customized program trains your ability to recognize speech in noisy and quiet environments while exercising cognitive skills necessary for speech, word memory and attention. A three month subscription is $150.
- Angel Sound: People with auditory processing disorders, cochlear implants or hearing aids can practice identifying and discriminating sounds and speech components through a series of PC-based, interactive, self-paced modules which cover different aspects of the listening process.
Experts estimate revenues in the brain training industry will reach $6 billion by 2020. And although brain games have been around for more than 100 years, they will likely not be a replacement for treating hearing loss with hearing aids. If you aren’t hearing as well as you used to, your best bet is to get off the computer and make an appointment with a hearing healthcare professional for a thorough hearing evaluation. Together, you can determine which treatment options best fit your hearing loss, budget and lifestyle.