Most changes in hearing are probably due as much to noise exposure as to aging. Exposure to loud noise over time damages the ear’s ability to hear. Nonetheless, some changes in hearing occur as people age, regardless of their exposure to loud noise. As people age, hearing high-pitched sounds becomes more difficult. This change is considered age-associated hearing loss (presbycusis). For example, violin music may sound less bright.
High-pitched sounds are particularly hard for older people to hear. The consequence of presbycusis is that words become harder to understand. As a result, older people think that other people are mumbling. The reason is that most consonants (such as k, t, s, p, and ch) are high-pitched, and consonants are the sounds that help people identify words. Because vowels are lower-pitched sounds, they are easier to hear. Older people hear “Ell me exactly what you wan oo ee,” rather than “Tell me exactly what you want to keep.” To help, other people need to articulate consonants more clearly, rather than simply speak louder. Understanding what women and children say may be more difficult than understanding what men say because most women and children have higher-pitched voices. Gradually, hearing lower pitches also becomes more difficult.
Many older people have more trouble hearing in loud places or in groups because of the background noise. Also, earwax, which interferes with hearing, tends to accumulate more. Hairs grow out of the ears and disturb sounds.