UMass scientist looks into hearing troubles for older adults

By David Barnstone


One scientist at the University of Massachusetts is looking for new ways to help older adults who have trouble hearing in situations where multiple voices are competing for their attention.

Karen Helfer, an associate professor of communication disorders, has received a $1.3 million grant from the National Institute for Deafness and Other Communication Disorders to conduct a five-year study on  why people have difficulty hearing a person they’re talking to in noisy situations such as in a restaurant or at a party.

In this study, Helfer and her team will explore the relationship between working memory and speech perception. She believes that auditory rehabilitation may be more effective if it includes techniques to improve a person’s ability to focus on the conversation they want to hear.

“First we have to establish that link between cognitive skills,” Helfer said. “Then we have to figure out which cognitive skills we need to train to improve.”

A large part of the grant will be used for personnel costs, including a computer programmer, graduate students on research assistantships and co-investigators from the communication disorders and psychology departments. Funds will also be used to cover equipment costs and the recruitment of participants.

Hefler said the study will look at what is colloquially called “the cocktail party effect,” which is “when you’re trying to understand one person and there’s a lot of other people in the background,” she said.

Hearing aids are not helpful in these situations because they cannot single out and amplify the particular voice you are trying to listen to, she said.

It’s a “universal complaint, and it’s one that technology has not yet been able to really tackle,” Helfer said.

Hearing and understanding speech is a “complex phenomenon” that we take for granted, Helfer said. The study will test participants’ ability to hear and process competing speech signals.

Helfer said she thinks the problem stems from a decline in the brain’s ability to process sounds into understandable speech and a breakdown in hearing mechanisms in the ear, which is a natural part of aging.

Since cognitive skills decline as people get older, they may have trouble keeping these signals from mixing in their mind. Helfer said researchers have become increasingly interested in the interaction of the brain and the ear, which has supported the development of an emerging field called cognitive hearing science.

Hearing loss is also treated through auditory rehabilitation, which includes listening strategies and lip reading, Helfer said.

Hearing loss can originate when people are young. Age-related hearing loss is influenced by the everyday noise you have experienced over the years, such as listening to loud music for extended periods of time, Helfer said.

“Younger people think they’re immune to these things and then they get to their mid-50s and all of a sudden they start to realize that these things have really impacted their ability to hear,” Helfer said.

Helfer has been studying speech perception and aging at UMass since 1988.

David Barnstone can be reached at [email protected]