New study sheds light on how age and cognitive factors influence hearing-related fatigue

New research shows that sensory and cognitive changes associated with aging can both increase hearing-related fatigue and protect against such fatigue. People who suffer from listening fatigue feel exhausted from everyday communication and feel the need to expend a lot of energy listening to and understanding others. The new findings were published in psychological science.

It is well known that aging is associated with reduced hearing sensitivity and changes in cognitive function. But surprisingly little is known about how these psychological variables interact with each other.

“Language understanding is a highly complex process that evolves over the entire human lifespan. Our brains must filter the variety of irrelevant sounds we encounter in our everyday lives (e.g. traffic noise, background conversations) to successfully perform this skill,” said study author Ronan McGarrigle, associate professor of psychology at the University of Bradford.

“While these ‘backstage surgeries’ go largely unnoticed for many people, for others (eg, those with hearing loss) this process can be costly. For about a decade I have been interested in better understanding how to characterize and measure these costs, which often involve feelings of tiredness and exhaustion from listening.”

“I found it both fascinating (and, frankly, a little worrying) that we know so little about an experience that feels very intuitive and familiar to most of us, but which can seriously impact the quality of life of those most affected. “

In the study, 281 adults between the ages of 18 and 85 completed an auditory attention task that assessed their ability to follow one speaker while ignoring another. Participants also performed subjective assessments of auditory fatigue, memory, mood states, sensory processing sensitivity, and hearing impairment.

Older adults tended to report greater hearing impairments, which in turn was associated with increased hearing-related fatigue. But after controlling for perceived hearing impairment, auditory attentional ability, and perceived memory ability, the researchers found that older adults actually tended to report less hearing-related fatigue than younger adults. This reduction in auditory fatigue in older adults appeared to be related to an age-related reduction in mood disorder and sensory processing sensitivity.

The researchers also found that older adults had lower auditory attention spans compared to their younger peers, which was associated with less auditory-related fatigue, but only for those with high sensory processing sensitivity.

“Our hearing sensitivity and cognitive abilities fluctuate in a variety of ways with age,” McGarrigle told PsyPost. “Among the best-documented age-related changes are memory and hearing losses in older adulthood. However, the current study results suggest that lower levels of mood disorders and reduced sensitivity to environmental stimuli may help protect us from hearing-related fatigue as we age.”

The researchers excluded potential participants who suffered from health conditions that can cause fatigue and those with clinically significant hearing loss.

“We were interested in investigating the prevalence of hearing fatigue in the normal healthy aging population,” McGarrigle said. “As a result, the study sample did not include individuals with a clinically diagnosed hearing loss, who are likely to be among those most vulnerable to hearing-related fatigue. We also know relatively little about the prevalence of hearing fatigue in other populations, including those with language or cognitive deficits or those who routinely communicate in their non-native language.”

“A limitation of the current study is that it is largely based on self-reported data, which means we cannot rule out the possibility of subjective bias in participants’ responses. Finally, the results are correlative in nature. Future research examining the causal factors underlying hearing-related fatigue is warranted.”

The Predictors of Listening-Related Fatigue Across the Adult Life Span study was authored by Ronan McGarrigle, Sarah Knight, Benjamin WY Hornsby, and Sven Mattys.

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