Helping older adults break through the noise

Research suggests musical training could lead to better late-life hearing

Date published: 2023-11-28 14:00:00


Hearing loss is one of the most common health issues among older adults and can have major impacts on their quality of life. Older adults with hearing problems are less likely to socialize with others, contributing to depression, anxiety and even cognitive decline. Benjamin Zendel, Canada Research Chair in Aging and Auditory Neuroscience at Memorial University, is exploring an unconventional yet promising solution to better hearing later in life: musical training.

By gaining a better understanding of how the auditory system works in older adults, Zendel hopes his research will help people lead fuller lives as they age.

“Hearing plays such a big part in how we communicate with each other,” he says. “Everyone loses their hearing to some degree as they age, so finding ways to improve hearing is of the utmost importance.”

A brain problem, not an ear one

Many older adults with hearing challenges still fare well in one-on-one conversations in quiet settings. But put them in a busy restaurant with many other people talking at the same time, along with clattering plates, loud background music and outside vehicle traffic, and they struggle to separate their companion’s voice from the noise—simply turning up the volume on a hearing aid won’t help because the issue isn’t with the ears, but with how the brain processes all of that auditory information later in life.

“The ears take in sound and convert it into code your brain can understand,” says Zendel. “So, if lots of noise reaches your ears, but you can’t focus on certain parts, like your friend’s voice, that’s a brain problem.”

Over the past decade, Zendel’s work has helped uncover new evidence of the brain’s capacity to change and adapt in response to new experiences—an ability known as neuroplasticity. Specifically, he has discovered a positive link between musical training, neuroplasticity and enhanced hearing in older adults.

It started with a 2012 study in which he found that older, lifelong musicians are better able to understand speech in noisy environments than younger non-musicians. Understanding why is the goal of his current research, which seeks to isolate the specific aspects of musical training that result in better auditory processing later in life, so they can be applied clinically to improve hearing in older adults.

The style of musical training matters

One of Zendel’s recent studies split older adults into two groups of 15 and assigned them piano pieces to learn. The first group practised each piece multiple times in a row before moving onto the next, while the second group practised pieces randomly rather than repetitively. After two weeks of practice, participants were connected to an electroencephalography (EEG) machine, which measured electrical activity in the brain while they listened for small auditory changes, like an off note in a melody. The brain activity of those who learned the piano pieces in random sequence showed more sensitivity to such changes than those who learned each piece consecutively, suggesting training style has an impact on auditory processing.

Neuroplasticity is behind the different outcomes. Zendel explains that practising one thing consecutively demands less thinking about that experience each time, while varying what’s practised requires more focus and concentration, leading to higher amounts of plasticity.

A new tool for enhanced hearing

The relationship between musical training styles and hearing loss outcomes is just one area Zendel is exploring. Through an international collaboration called the SingWell Project, he’s investigating the impacts of singing in a choir on various aspects of communication, including hearing. As well, he’s looking into how individual traits and characteristics, including genetic factors, may be able to predict the degree to which musical training will be successful in improving the hearing of an individual. This is important because, unlike taking a pill, it’s a solution that demands serious effort and commitment.

It’s still early days for research in this area, and larger-scale studies are required to fully prove the effects of musical training on hearing in older adults. But interest is high among audiologists. In 2022, Zendel was invited to deliver a speech on his findings at a conference organized by the Canadian Academy of Audiology.

Ultimately, Zendel hopes audiologists will eventually use this research to develop new kinds of auditory rehabilitation programs. Until then, there’s no need to wait for a prescription from a medical professional.

“Compared to pharmaceutical drugs and hearing aids, music is effectively free,” he says. “You can self-teach using videos online, and many libraries lend out instruments. So, it’s very low risk, with the only potential side effect being a newfound appreciation for music!”

Want to learn more?

Learn more about Benjamin Zendel’s research at the Cognitive Aging and Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory (CAANLab) website.