By: Ella Dubinsky
As we age, most adults experience some degree of hearing loss. Although hearing aids can be used to amplify sound, many adults suffering from normal age-related declines simply learn to live with this impairment. One issue that both aided and un-aided older adults experience is a difficulty tracking speech in a noisy environment, making it hard to hear one person talking in a crowded room. This has been linked to an age-related degradation of the neural mechanisms with which the brain encodes auditory signals; basically, as we age, our brains get worse at processing what we’re hearing, making it harder to distinguish a relevant voice from background noise. This can make it harder for aging adults to participate in group conversations and social events, which can lead to feelings of isolation and emotional withdrawal. As such, finding a way to help people preserve and regain this ability is essential.
One thing that seems to help is a life of music. Aging musicians have been shown to experience less neuronal degradation in auditory signal processing than non-musicians, along with an enhanced ability to track pitch changes and voices in a noisy environment. However, short-term musical training has not yet been explored as an intervention to assist those already suffering from hearing loss. Researchers at Ryerson University’s SMART Lab are asking the question: can we use music to help older adults train their brains, and in doing so, improve their hearing? And can we make the process engaging and fun?
The current study investigates whether taking part in a 10-week group singing program can improve hearing and cognitive functioning in aging adults. Participants (aged 50+), recruited through the 50+ program, take part in weekly group choir sessions and complete online musical training for 10 weeks. Individuals come into the lab at the beginning and end of the program, for pre- and post-training assessments of hearing and cognition. Early findings are very promising; participants show significant improvements in speech-in-noise perception, pitch discrimination, and the neural response to sound, as well as cognitive measures of attention. These results lend support to the use of choir participation and musical training as an intervention for older adults, to help mitigate age-related auditory and cognitive declines. Don’t be surprised if someday your family doctor recommends joining a singing group to help with your hearing!