In a previous post I wrote about a new study that shows that older brains have a harder time processing speech than do younger ones. In the study, even people with normal hearing had a hard time hearing in noise, what I call Cocktail Party Syndrome.
Several readers wrote to say that this same problem applies to lip reading and to ASL. I’m about to start taking ASL lessons (I’ll report on my progress) but I do worry that the old brain may just not be up to learning not only a new language but a language that is visual rather than aural.
Meanwhile, for those who may not have gotten to the end of my previous, rather lengthy post, here are some tips for keeping the hearing part of your brain agile. You might start with general brain-training exercises, which help in all sort of cognitive tasks. Physical exercise has been found help brain agility.
For exercises more specific to hearing comprehension you could use techniques like those used in auditory, or aural, rehab, where the brain is trained to recognize words more quickly and accurately. There are formal programs for this, like the online Listening and Communication Enhancement (LACE) programs, but you can also practice simply by listening to a recorded book and then checking the text to see whether you heard accurately.
Make sure you can see the speaker, and pay attention. Visual clues gleaned from facial expression, body language and the movement of the eyebrows and eyes assist speech comprehension. Formal speech-reading classes teach you to pay attention to these signals, but we all speech-read to some extent. It’s why even hearing people crane their necks to see a speaker, even if they can hear the speaker. This need to see as well as hear has an official name: the McGurk effect, named after one of the British scientists who discovered in the 1970s that we comprehend speech better if what we are hearing matches what we are seeing. The scientists called it “hearing lips and seeing voices.”
Make sure the speaker pays attention to you, too — starting with facing you. Ask companions to speak clearly and slowly but also naturally. For those with normal hearing, there’s no point in raising your voice because they can already hear — they just can’t understand. For those with hearing loss, shouting distorts the face and makes speech reading even more difficult. So ask them to speak slowly (but not too slowly) and clearly. And keep your eyes on their face.
Find a quiet corner and make it yours. Let people come to you, so that when they do you can hear them. If there’s someone you’d really like to speak to, ask them if they would sit with you. I find that involving others with my hearing loss, asking them to help, is often happily embraced. People like to be told how they can help. Most people, anyway — there are indeed very grouchy people out there who will be rude to you, but luckily they are not very often found at cocktail parties.