Soft Whisper or Complete Silence: Can the Aging Ear Tell the Difference

Hearing Loss Traced to Age-related Changes in Cochlear Function and Central Auditory Processing

Nadège Chéry, PhD

In a society that extols the virtues of youth, hearing impairment in the elderly is often perceived as a graceless symbol of old age. Unfortunately, because of this attitude, most seniors would rather deny that, upon reaching their aged ears, even the most vibrant sounds fail to be heard. Hearing impairment affects over 50% of Canadians aged 60 years and over.1 The incidence of hearing loss increases considerably with age, reaching 81% among persons 80 years of age or over.1 Importantly, hearing impairment can have devastating consequences on the social life of an older person, and may profoundly alter their emotional wellbeing.1,3,7 Although common among older adults, auditory processing defects are not an inevitable side effect of aging.5,9 In fact, in most cases, hearing problems can be resolved,3 and yet, many older persons afflicted with hearing loss are unaware of this or simply choose not to deal with the problem.

Normal hearing is a complex mechanism that involves the transfer and subsequent conversion of sound into electrical impulses to be processed by the brain.