Activities and lifestyle are important considerations for potential hearing aid users because of the variability in listening environments that they may encounter. Individuals who work or have active social lives may be more likely to benefit from advanced hearing aids and added features like directionality and noise reduction than individuals with less social lifestyles in which a large proportion of time is spent at home or in quiet conditions.
Despite the fact that older adults are more likely to experience hearing loss and poorer word recognition ability, older adults generally report less hearing disability and less social or emotional impact from their hearing loss than younger adults do. One explanation for this is that older adults may have less demanding lifestyles than younger adults because they may encounter fewer challenging listening situations. This is assumed to be the case because older adults may participate in fewer social activities and have smaller social networks than younger adults.
The assumption that older adults are less prone to social interaction could be countered by the suggestion that retirement allows more time for social activities that could present communication challenges. In fact, following retirement, older adults report having more time to travel, visit with family, and volunteer.
So do older adults have quieter, less demanding lifestyles?
Twenty-seven hearing-impaired adults, ranging from 40 to 88 years of age, participated in a study. All had hearing losses. The majority were experienced hearing aid users.
They recorded their listening activities as well as the listening environments with special dosimeters. Listening activities were classified according to 6 categories and 5 environment categories. Along with social lifestyle measurements.
Journal entries provided information about the proportion of time each spent in speech-related activities, in quiet and noisy conditions. People in both age groups spent the highest proportion of time listening to media at home, followed by small-group conversations at home and small-group conversations away from home. The proportion of time spent in phone conversations or outdoors was relatively small for both groups. There were no significant differences between young and old adult groups for the percentages of time spent in any of the activity categories.
Analysis of the dosimeter measurements helped determine the proportion of time participants spent in noisy conditions and the intensity of the sound they encountered. The sound levels encountered by both groups had a significant range and not surprisingly, the highest levels occurred in crowds and traffic and the lowest levels occurred at home. The measured sound levels were higher for younger listeners than older listeners for most of the noise encountered was significant for only two events: small group conversation in traffic and media listening in traffic.
Correlations were found showing that older people had smaller social networks and were also likely to experience fewer listening demands than younger subjects. Age did not affect listening demand on its own as much as it did when social lifestyle was also considered.
The results show that younger and older adults have similar noise lifestyles, in terms of the amount of time they spend in each speech-related activities, in quiet and also noisy conditions. But whether or not older individuals experience fewer listening demands is a more complicated issue.
This study suggests that younger adults might drive faster, listen to louder music, or drive on the highway more often than older adults, which would have the effect of increasing sound noise in these conditions. Similarly, if some of the noisy situations encountered by younger adults were in bars or clubs, they would yield higher sound level measurements than moderately noisy restaurants.
The study suggests that assumptions about age should not wholly dictate the decisions in hearing aid treatment plans so much as social activities and lifestyle should. Certainly, individuals of any age with diverse social activities will experience more listening demands than those with quieter lifestyles. However, the working class may present more complicated listening demands for reasons other than overall sound noise and duration of exposure. Employed hearing aid users may experience stress related to their communication ability when interacting with co-workers, managers, and supervisors that is not comparable to the listening demand experienced in purely social situations with similar sound levels. Because the selection of hearing aids can be affected by all of these variables, self-report inventories and detailed hearing test histories used to illuminate each individual’s social and auditory lifestyle will help to arrive at decisions appropriate for the patient.
Wu, Y. & Bentler, R. (2012). Do older adults have social lifestyles that place fewer demands on hearing? Journal of the American Academy of Audiology 23, 697-711.