THURSDAY, Oct. 6, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- When background noise makes it hard to carry on a conversation, many older people chalk it up to hearing loss. But a new, small study finds that the problem may not just be in your ear, but also in your brain.

Researchers from the University of Maryland in College Park have found that the brain's ability to process speech declines with age.

For the study, Alessandro Presacco and colleagues divided 32 English-speaking adults into two groups -- one with an average age of 22, the other with an average age of 65. Study participants were given a speech comprehension test and also underwent brain scans.

In both quiet and noisy settings, the older people had more trouble tracking and understanding speech. Evidence of these hearing-related deficits in the older participants was also evident in the brain scans, the investigators found.

The findings suggest that age-related problems with understanding speech are not only due to an inability to hear at certain volumes. They may also occur because the brain cannot correctly interpret the meaning of sound signals, the researchers said in a news release from the American Physiological Society.

The study was published recently in the Journal of Neurophysiology.

More information

The U.S. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders has more on age-related hearing loss.