What did you say?

I sit in a booth with ear phones on listening intently to a soft swoosh sound, pressing one of two buttons on a little box – right or left – depending which side I perceive the sound to have come from. Outside the window, a research assistant watches intently as the results are recorded on a computer.

This is the Hearing Laboratory at the University of Toronto’s Erindale campus in Mississauga, Ont., and I’m the willing victim of psychology professor Dr. Bruce Schneider, who’s studying age-related changes to hearing. Dr. Schneider’s team – including Dr. Dana R. Murphy, a post-doctoral fellow in psychology, and research assistant Jane Carey – began studying the effect age has upon hearing loss back in the late 1980s. Since then, their work has evolved into looking at the effects of age-related changes on speech recognition.

Findings so far have shown that as we age we have trouble understanding conversation in noisy environments because we become less efficient at deciphering speech signals from other noises. The lab is studying how hearing affects such things as speech recognition, speech understanding and memory performance, as there’s some indication that memory loss may bpartially due to hearing problems.

“We’re looking at how these age-related changes affect performance in everyday activities such as listening to a conversation, talking to friends or children,”says Schneider. “We’re particularly interested in the effects of these changes on the functioning of older individuals in society.” If a younger person’s hearing is challenged so that they have as much difficulty as an older person, their performance is about equal. Schneider explains: “All we have to do to make it equivalent for younger people is to simply increase the noise a little bit, make the speech a little faster… and they report getting frustrated.

“If I’m in the same listening situation, as say, my 16-year-old son, he can carry on a conversation with the music playing, the television going and several people talking. I can’t hear what’s going on,”Schneider adds. “If you’re one of the older people in a group of people conversing, they’re not going to have to work very hard, but you will in order to hear.”

It’s hoped Dr. Schneider’s findings may be of use when selecting the correct type of hearing aid for the hearing impaired. They will also help make people aware of listening environments and how they affect hearing. For example, problems can occur when designing buildings and rooms with large open areas of glass and hard surfaces. Sounds bounce off these surfaces, making it difficult for people – particularly those with hearing problems – to separate the voices from the reflected sounds.

Right now the lab is looking for senior volunteers with relatively good hearing. For some studies they don’t need to have really good hearing. A small honorarium is paid for the volunteer’s time. If you’re interested in participating in these studies, contact Jane at (905) 828-3825 or Elizabeth at (905) 828-5447.

Marilyn Fraser is a Mississauga, Ont.,-based freelance writer.