Happiness, Hearing and the Science of Positive Aging
Glen is a practicing psychotherapist, a professor of psychology at City University of Seattle in Vancouver, and a consultant to several health authorities.
Happiness is about many things – like life satisfaction – but mostly it’s about the difference between what we expect and what actually happens. Hearing is a key to our general wellbeing because it mediates safety and social connection. Positive aging happens when we are safe, in charge of our own lives, and making the most of our health.
How do happiness, hearing, and positive aging fit together?
If you can’t hear well, there is a bigger and bigger difference between what you expect, and what actually happens – this is a recipe for unhappiness. If you can’t hear well, you use up precious brainpower making up for lost hearing – brainpower that is needed for staying healthy, connecting with other people, and staying mentally and physically fit.
Positive aging is helped by:
- Creativity and learning new things
- Physical activity – especially activity that combines senses, judgment, movement, strength and speed
- Social connection
How is this connected to hearing?
Your brain (central nervous system) ages, just like bones or muscles. Using your brain keeps this change to a minimum. Older people use their whole brain, and that is part of why they do just about as well as youngsters. Making sense of information takes a lot of brainpower. Your ears – information sources – decline with age.
What is age-related hearing loss?
The basilar membrane within the cochlea of the inner ear becomes less flexible with age. The number of receptor cells within the cochlea go down with age – and men generally lead the way, just like with other kinds of hair loss. As a result, sounds are less intense (loud) and are incomplete. Age–related hearing loss is usually so gradual that most people don’t realize they have a problem. If you’re over 50 it is a good idea to get your hearing screened by an audiologist.
If your hearing was extraordinary, later in life it will become average. Young people can hear sounds between 20 and 20,000 hertz (cycles per second); most human speech is between 400 and 1000 hertz. As you age, you can’t hear as wide a range of pitches as you did before. The sounds passing through your ears, and into your brain, are not as loud and not as clear. Almost everyone will find it harder to hear high-pitched sounds as they age. Men tend to lose their hearing a little bit more than women.
High-pitched sounds include the consonant sounds in human speech. When the receptors in your ears no longer sense these sounds, your brain will simply stop listening for them. You will, for example, no longer notice the difference between a “p” and “b” sound. This is why it is very important to get hearing aids sooner rather than later. If you delay getting hearing aids, it will take your brain time to get used to processing high-pitched sounds again.
Use your brain to compensate for this decline
Increased concentration and selective attention make up for volume loss. Analysis, memory and experience fill in the gaps using things like context, visual clues and stored knowledge. In other words, as you get older, you use more brainpower to compensate for hearing loss – exactly the kind of brainpower that has limits and could be used for other purposes.
Tips for conserving your brainpower:
- Use multiple sources of input – speech, sound, visual cues – whatever helps
- Reduce interference – go slowly, reduce background noise.
- Use hearing aids and other assistive devices – they will never completely correct your hearing, but they will help
- Help your eyes with glasses, magnifiers, and increased light – a 60-year-old needs four times as much light as a 20-year-old
- Appreciate that your brain is doing more and better work than ever before – give it a rest sometimes!
- Help your aging eyes and ears with corrective lenses and hearing aids your memory will improve (in the absence of brain disorders or disease). And compared with people 20 years old, your ability to learn will continue to be about the same. What are you doing when you are “aging positively”?
- Mobilize your resources – be inspired by Arthur Rubenstein who maintained his career as a concert pianist through his 80s by adapting his playing style as he aged. He practiced more, performed fewer pieces and played more slowly. Make affirmative lifestyle choices – know your life goals; give and receive help; and “self- actualize” by doing the things that matter most to you.
It is almost certain that these things are going to involve communicating through spoken language – hearing.
As we age, motor processing (reflexes) slow down, but our overall performance isn’t affected. Older people actually have some advantages over youngsters. For example, they are better at anticipating outcomes, planning and thinking flexibly. The movie Top Gun illustrates this point. The older pilots outperformed their younger colleagues in jet fighter combat simulations. Even though they used dated aircraft, their ability to stay calm and anticipate the next move was a significant advantage.
Emphasize the positives
Every stage of life has challenges. As you age, try these coping strategies:
- Carry a notebook Create routines and helpful habits
- Turn up the lights and turn down the sound
- Keep in touch with the difference between what is happening and what you think about what is happening
- Think positively to activate positive neural pathways
Aging positively can be predicted by:
- Absence of arthritis, diabetes, tobacco use and depression
- Strong cognitive (thinking and remembering and planning) ability
- No chronic or traumatic psychological stress
- Not overeating
- Lots of moderate stress from exercise, effort, socializing and intellectual activity
- Keeping your brain active - it will become damaged and deteriorate over time, but if used, it will compensate by reorganizing and building new neural networks How positive aging links to happiness If you anticipate the inevitable changes that come with aging they won’t cause you dismay and distress. By continuing to be active, you’ll experience yourself as connected, engaged in possibilities and effective. Favourite activities and interests can generally continue to be enjoyed for your whole life.
How hearing links to happiness
Everyone gets older. Your senses, and especially your ears, don’t work as well as you age. Looking after your hearing means that you are using less brainpower to decode bits of communication. Your brainpower is saved for doing the things that bring you joy. Good hearing reduces stress, promotes learning, improves memory and keeps your brain healthy. If you get hearing aids and they don’t seem to help at first, don’t dismiss them too quickly – it takes time to build the neural connections that have been lost. With patience, you’ll be rewarded with better hearing.