Continuing to have social interaction is key to keeping your ears sensitive even in old age, suggests new research.
Hearing socially meaningful sounds can change the ear and enable it to better detect those sounds, the findings showed.
"The ear is modifiable," said one of the researchers Walter Wilczynski, professor at Georgia State University in the US.
"It's plastic. It can change by getting better or worse at picking up signals, depending on particular types of experiences, such as listening to social signals,” Wilczynski explained.
The researchers studied the phenomenon in green treefrogs. Researchers used green treefrogs because they have a simple social system with only one or two vocal calls.
In the lab, the experimental group heard their species' specific calls every night for 10 consecutive nights as they would in a normal social breeding chorus in the wild, while the control group heard random tones with no social meaning.
Then the researchers placed electrodes on the skin near the frogs' ears and measured the response of their ears to sound.
"If frogs have a lot of experience hearing their vocal signals, the ones that are behaviourally meaningful to them, their ear changes to help them better cope with processing those signals," Wilczynski said.
The findings were published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.
The findings could have important implications for elderly people in nursing homes or prisoners in solitary confinement, both of whom have little social interaction.
"My guess is people who have a lot of experience with our social vocal signal, which is our speech, this probably helps keep their sensory system in a healthy state that helps them pick out those signals," Wilczynski said.
The researchers are unsure, however, how this change in the ear occurs or what particular change has been made, although they believe the modification occurs in the inner ear based on electrophysiological tests.