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Reducing the impacts of hearing loss on memory

By Kelly Foss

It may be widely accepted that older people are more forgetful, but Dr. Aimee Surprenant, an associate professor of Psychology, says that may have more to do with hearing loss than cognitive impairment.

While looking into the impact of noise on memory, she found that noise, particularly background speech babble, had significant impact on memory performance both in auditory and visual tests.

“It occurred to me that older adults are always hearing things in noise because almost everyone gets a bit of hearing loss as they get older,” she said. “Hearing loss doesn’t just make sound less intense. It also distorts it a little bit so it’s like adding a bit of noise to the signal.”

That led her to wonder whether the age related differences in memory can be traced to some of the difficulties older individuals might have in taking in the information.

“Because of hearing loss it takes them more effort to understand each word,” explained Dr. Surprenant. “If you have to put all of your limited resources into hearing each word then your performance will also be affected.”

Dr. Surprenant has begun testing those theories through a number of experiments she is conducting on volunteers. Those experiments have established a direct link between hearing ability and a person’s ability to recall a list of words in order.

“We’ve found that for relatively meaningless pieces of information the hearing loss does predict performance on a memory test,” she said. “However as we add more and more meaning to the stimuli and make it more complicated the hearing loss becomes slightly less important because you can compensate for hearing loss by doing other things.”

The professor is about to begin a project that incorporates auditory training to see if individuals can improve their memory if they are trained to focus their attention more precisely on a signal. The process would include putting the individuals through a variety of memory and cognitive tests, providing them with 10 hours of auditory training and then testing them again to see if their performance improved.

Dr. Surprenant is hoping her findings will be used to improve the lives of seniors and is trying to establish links with health based professionals. She is in discussions with an audiologist in hopes of setting up a collaboration that would give her access to people before and after they receive hearing aids.

“You feel there is something that can be done about a sensory problem,” said Dr. Surprenant. “Most people don’t get a hearing aid until they have really significant hearing loss and they’ve had some measure of hearing loss for on average 10 years or so. It’s possible this research will get people to change their guidelines of when hearing loss becomes clinically significant. If we can show that by giving people auditory training or a hearing aid earlier in the process we can slow down the decline and that would be something that would be really interesting and useful.”

She is also talking with health care people who work with stroke victims to see if cognitive training would be beneficial to those individuals as well.

“The group of researchers at Memorial University who are interested in healthy aging are all excited about this project,” said Dr. Surprenant. “We feel like we can do something about this problem. Ultimately is a quality of life issue. People who are physically disabled don’t lose the social aspects of life whereas people who are mentally disabled do. Part of that is not being able to understand what other people are saying and so people just stop talking to you.”