June 15, 2021
Thanks to over $940,000 in funding from all three federal granting agencies – CIHR, NSERC and SSHRC – researchers at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute (RRI) will advance our understanding of ways to support older adults with hearing and vision loss, helping them to stay socially engaged and protecting their brain health as they age.
Improving listening skills in noisy environments
Many older adults have difficulty isolating relevant sounds from background noise in day-to-day communication – for example, listening to a friend’s voice in a noisy restaurant. This reduced ability not only puts them at risk for social isolation, but also increases their chances of developing dementia. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) has awarded two Baycrest scientists prestigious grants to improve our understanding of hearing and ways to preserve it as we age.
The scientists are leveraging their expertise in this area to tackle the issue from two unique angles. With his NSERC Discovery Grant, Dr. Björn Herrmann, Baycrest’s Canada Research Chair in Auditory Aging, will improve our understanding of how age-related changes in the brain can negatively impact our ability to pay attention to relevant sounds while ignoring background noises. “The results of this research will help people with hearing difficulties to better understand speech in noisy environments, allowing them to stay engaged in communication,” says Dr. Herrmann. “The findings may also be important in creating guidelines for the design of public spaces that are inclusive of all abilities.”
Senior Scientist Dr. Claude Alain’s NSERC Discovery Grant will allow him to examine how memory and prior knowledge impact a person’s listening ability across different conditions. With this work, Dr. Alain and his team will be some of the first to investigate whether our capacity to pay attention to relevant sounds depends largely on the brain, not the sounds themselves. Says Dr. Alain, “This will pave the way to develop training programs to improve listening skills regardless of hearing level, which will ultimately help older adults stay socially connected.”
A new, state-of-the-art auditory lab
Dr. Alain has also been awarded NSERC funding to develop a new laboratory to study the brain dynamics involved in listening. In this lab, scientists will be able to mix different environmental sounds and digitally create the sounds of a particular environment, such as the familiar city soundscape of Toronto. This lab will further enhance the momentum of research in this field at Baycrest, and will ultimately advance our understanding of links between hearing and how we understand and interact with our environment.
Protecting older adults’ brain health with personal sound amplification products
The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) have granted Dr. Alain’s PhD student Maxime Perron a highly competitive three-year Doctoral Award to determine whether personal sound amplification products, which are inexpensive alternatives to hearing aids, can mitigate cognitive decline associated with hearing in older adults with mild to moderate hearing loss. “The results of this study will provide new information that can help protect the cognition of older adults with hearing loss who cannot afford conventional hearing aids, and especially those at risk of cognitive decline and dementia, helping to maintain their quality of life as they age,” says Dr. Alain.
Engaging visually impaired older adults with audiobooks and podcasts
Dr. Herrmann has received an important five-year grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) to examine how individuals with vision impairment experience auditory materials such as audiobooks and podcasts. Through this research, Dr. Herrmann and his team – including scientists from the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) and the Université de Montréal, and RRI Senior Scientist and Norman and Honey Schipper Chair in Gerontological Social Work, Dr. Amanda Grenier – will help facilitate the development of guidelines and recommendations about the types of auditory materials that are most engaging for the increasing number of older adults with impaired vision. Says Dr. Herrmann, “Our findings will make it possible to maximize the beneficial social and psychological effects of leisurely reading for this group.”
Baycrest is a global leader in geriatric residential living, healthcare, research, innovation and education, with a special focus on brain health and aging. Baycrest is home to a robust research and innovation network, including one of the world’s top research institutes in cognitive neuroscience, the Rotman Research Institute; the scientific headquarters of the Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging, Canada’s largest national dementia research initiative; and the Baycrest-powered Centre for Aging + Brain Health Innovation, a solution accelerator focused on driving innovation in the aging and brain health sector. Fully affiliated with the University of Toronto, Baycrest provides excellent care for older adults combined with an extensive clinical training program for the next generation of healthcare professionals. Through these initiatives, Baycrest has remained at the forefront of the fight to defeat dementia as our organization works to create a world where every older adult enjoys a life of purpose, inspiration and fulfilment. Founded in 1918 as the Toronto Jewish Old Folks Home, Baycrest continues to embrace the long-standing tradition of all great Jewish healthcare institutions to improve the well-being of people in their local communities and around the globe. For more information please visit: www.baycrest.org
About Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute
The Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest is a premier international centre for the study of human brain function. Through generous support from private donors and funding agencies, the institute is helping to illuminate the causes of cognitive decline in seniors, identify promising approaches to treatment and lifestyle practices that will protect brain health longer in the lifespan.
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