Tolerance For Loud Noises Decreases With Age

November 19, 1998

SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- If your grandmother is complaining that your rock music is too loud, it's probably because the music actually sounds louder to her than it does to you, says an Ohio University researcher studying senior citizens' auditory perceptions of rock music.

In a study comparing how young adults and senior citizens judge noise levels of rock music, Professor of Hearing and Speech Sciences Donald Fucci found that seniors rated rock music much higher on a loudness scale than younger people.

"As we get older, our tolerance for loudness is lower," said Fucci, lead author of this new study. The researchers tested 10 people age 18 to 21 and 10 people ranging in age from 51 to 58.

"With older people, you can actually see them squinching from the music," Fucci said. "They say it hurts their ears."

The research will be presented Nov. 19 at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association's annual meeting in San Antonio, Texas, by study co-author Linda Petrosino, professor of hearing and speech at Bowling Green State University.

For the study, researchers asked participants to rate the loudness of rock music played at nine intensities, ranging from 10 decibels to 90 decibels. Normal conversation is about 60 decibels, and 130 decibels nears the threshold of pain in which ears start to burn and hearing can be damaged. Live rock music often is played at 130 decibels, Fucci said.

Participants listened to the rock song "Heartbreaker" by Led Zeppelin for 10 seconds at different intensities. At each intensity, the older subjects gave the music higher numerical ratings based on loudness than the younger subjects.

"Even if you had a really low intensity, the older adults gave higher numbers right off the bat," Fucci said.

As many people age, they develop a common hearing loss condition, called presbycusis, in which hearing gradually deteriorates and certain sounds become distorted. The elderly's perception of high frequencies diminishes, and low frequencies -- like the bass and drums of rock music -- are magnified.

"When older people lose the high frequencies, they hear a distortion. What they hear resembles sound from an Edison phonograph more than sound from a high-quality stereo," Fucci said. "With rock music, they still are hearing the low frequencies, and the beat and rhythm knocks their heads off."

Although physiological changes affect people's hearing as they age, emotion also plays a role in auditory perception, he said. In previous studies, Fucci has found that if people dislike a certain type of music, they're naturally going to perceive it as being uncomfortably loud.

All the participants in Fucci's study, both young and old, said they disliked rock music. Fucci suspects, however, that the older subjects were more annoyed by the music probably because they didn't grow up listening to it.

"I think there's an irritational factor with older people toward rock music," he said. "Most don't like it and aren't expected to like it. These subjects just didn't like the rock music at any level."

Fucci has been studying people's auditory perception of rock music since 1993, including the differences in perception among males, females and children. This latest study, also published in a recent issue of Perceptual and Motor Skills, was co-authored by Petrosino and Doug McColl, a graduate student in hearing and speech sciences at Ohio University. Fucci holds an appointment in the College of Health and Human Services.

Contact: Donald Fucci, 740-593-1421;
Written by Melissa Rake, 740-593-1891;

Ohio University

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