File image: Pexels
After a certain age, dining out can mean battling to hear over background chatter and clattering plates.

But there's hope for those who struggle in noisy rooms – and the key lies not with their ears but their brains, a study suggests.

Scientists found that brain training games are three times as effective as hearing aids alone for helping older people to follow what someone is saying over a racket.

The US team developed a game in which pensioners had to pick out individual sounds – after which they were able to understand an average of 25 per cent more words spoken against loud background noise. The team, who hope their game will be available in five years, said this is a similar skill to musicians in orchestras who can tune out other instruments to focus on their sound.

Co-author Dr Daniel Polley, from Harvard Medical School, said: ‘These findings underscore that understanding speech in noisy conditions is a whole brain activity, and is not strictly governed by the ear. Our subjects' hearing, strictly speaking, did not get better. And, yet, their ability to make sense of what they had heard did.' 

As we get older, inner ear damage and brain changes make it more difficult to filter out irrelevant sound.

For the game, 24 people with an average age of 70 were asked to focus on sound chimes that changed in pitch, while also being played a recording of people talking loudly. They had to draw shapes on a computer screen, stopping the line for each side of the shape when the pitch of the chime got lower.
The task was repeated for chimes getting louder and faster. Other participants did traditional brain training instead. When both groups were then tested, those who had played the scientists' game heard significantly more words against background noise, the journal Current Biology reports. 

And when the background noise was not too close in volume to the speech, their accuracy rate was three times better than the result achieved with hearing aids alone.

Jesal Vishnuram, of the charity Action on Hearing Loss, said: ‘Innovative brain training games such as this can allow people with to continue enjoying social activities.' 

Daily Mail