UMass Amherst Hearing Researchers to Study Problems and Aids for Middle-Aged Listeners

UMass Amherst: News Archive

AMHERST, Mass. – Middle-aged adults often show up in hearing clinics complaining that they have trouble hearing, but standard tests show their hearing ability, known to scientists as pure-tone threshold, is only slightly impaired, says hearing researcher Karen Helfer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s School of Public Health and Health Sciences (SPHHS). Typically, they leave with no confirmation of their sense that they are hearing less well.To explore this disconnect and to investigate the idea that what middle-aged adults may be noticing is not hearing loss but an early age-related change in listening effort, she has a new five-year, $2,020,470 grant from the NIH’s National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.
Helfer and colleagues will study not only listening effort – the need to expend extra effort to comprehend speech in certain situations – but also will evaluate the effectiveness of new over-the-counter hearing aids increasingly being marketed to middle-aged adults as “personal sound amplifiers.”
The new studies build on Helfer’s many previous investigations of young adults, middle-aged people between ages 45 and 64, and older adults, all of which have explored peoples’ ability to understand speech in the presence of background sounds, whether made up of meaningful words or just noise.
She explains, “We found a really interesting pattern in several studies. When the background sounds are noise, carrying no information, middle-aged adults performed more like younger listeners. But when the background sound was speech, the middle-aged participants had trouble understanding, and performed much like the older participants. Finding this in several studies led us to this project that will look into how middle-aged adults understand speech in complex environments.”
To determine whether middle-aged adults need to apply more listening effort in certain situations, Helfer and her SPHHS co-investigator, kinesiologist Richard Van Emmerik, will ask study participants do two tasks at once.
She says, “We’re particularly excited to …

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