Hearing loss is a growing problem, especially among seniors. Between 2000 and 2015, the number of Americans with hearing loss doubled, and is now estimated to be 48 million. Although hearing loss has slightly declined among U.S. adults ages 20 to 69, the number has risen steadily in the 70 and over age group. This is a concern because, aside from the problem of not being able to communicate, hearing loss can make other problems associated with old age worse, such as loss of mobility and dementia.
Hearing aids have been proven to significantly help with these issues, but less than half of people who could benefit from hearing devices actually wear them. That’s why one Washington University researcher is developing a program that can improve speech understanding for anyone with hearing loss, regardless of whether or not they wear a hearing aid. And one of the key components of the program? Practicing with the voices of the people closest to you. Read on to find out more.
clEAR: Online exercises to rehabilitate hearing
Researcher Nancy Tye-Murray wants to ease the struggles that people with hearing loss face in their day-to-day lives. That’s why she and her partners at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis are developing software tools to help with speech recognition and make conversations easier, for people with many different levels of hearing loss. Their program, which also provides ongoing contact with an audiologist, is called clEAR, or “customized learning: Exercises for Aural Rehabilitation”.
Tye-Murray and the program’s co-founder, Brent Spehar, launched their program in 2016. The software is customizable, affordable and can be used by patients and professionals alike. You can learn more about it on their website, clearworks4ears.
The company’s goals are to help people with hearing loss to:
-recognize the speech of their frequent communication partner (FCP) as well as everyday talkers.
-better recognize speech in noisy situations
-increase their participation in social situations by being an active participant in conversations.
-experience less stress during routine family conversations.
-exercise the brain and the important thinking skills that stave off cognitive decline and dementia.
The speech recognition exercises have been shown to make communication easier and less stressful for those who wear hearing aids, as well as those who don’t. It was important to Tye-Murray that the program be helpful across the board–whether hearing aids, cochlear implants, or none of these tools are used.
How do the exercises work?
The key difference between the clEAR program and other speech-recognition software is that the user can practice listening to specific, rather than generic voices. Practicing with the voice of a loved one has been shown to be of particular benefit for people with hearing loss. The exercises have also been designed to be stimulating and entertaining, rather like online games.
Another way this software differs from other systems is that patients work closely with an audiologist, who offers support, advice, concern and encouragement throughout the training. According to Tye-Murray’s research, patients have better outcomes when they know a professional is invested in their hearing health.
The training program also allows users to practice other, secondary skills which are useful to hearing, such as auditory attention, auditory working memory, and auditory processing speed.
The importance of a loved one’s voice
The most important breakthrough in Nancy Tye-Murray’s research was the revelation that patients exhibit improved recognition of speech when practicing with a familiar voice, as opposed to a generic one; this finding has been the foundation of her work with clEAR. Her report, which was recently published in the Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, runs counter to the belief–formerly held in the field of audiological research–that familiarity with a voice may hinder a patient’s ability to understand that same voice.
The clEAR training software allows patients to practice listening to the voices they love and are most familiar with. The customizable software allows the patient’s family member or friend to record audio clips; the program then edits the clips and practice can begin immediately. Spouses, children or grandchildren often record their voices so that their loved ones with you hearing loss can begin to improve their understanding of speech, one exercise at a time.
Practice at Home with Your Hearing Aids
For those of us without access to clEAR, consider enlisting your loved ones to help you practice listening at home! The period of adjustment to hearing aids requires patience and support from your loved ones. Practice using your hearing aids in conversations with your loved ones, or ask your loved one to read aloud to you.