Masked speech perception across the adult lifespan: Impact of age and hearing impairment

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As people grow older, speech perception difficulties become highly prevalent, especially in noisy listening situations. Moreover, it is assumed that speech intelligibility is more affected in the event of background noises that induce a higher cognitive load, i.e., noises that result in informational versus energetic masking. There is ample evidence showing that speech perception problems in aging persons are partly due to hearing impairment and partly due to age-related declines in cognition and suprathreshold auditory processing. In order to develop effective rehabilitation strategies, it is indispensable to know how these different degrading factors act upon speech perception. This implies disentangling effects of hearing impairment versus age and examining the interplay between both factors in different background noises of everyday settings. To that end, we investigated open-set sentence identification in six participant groups: a young (20–30 years), middle-aged (50–60 years), and older cohort (70–80 years), each including persons who had normal audiometric thresholds up to at least 4 kHz, on the one hand, and persons who were diagnosed with elevated audiometric thresholds, on the other hand. All participants were screened for (mild) cognitive impairment. We applied stationary and amplitude modulated speech-weighted noise, which are two types of energetic maskers, and unintelligible speech, which causes informational masking in addition to energetic masking. By means of these different background noises, we could look into speech perception performance in listening situations with a low and high cognitive load, respectively. Our results indicate that, even when audiometric thresholds are within normal limits up to 4 kHz, irrespective of threshold elevations at higher frequencies, and there is no indication of even mild cognitive impairment, masked speech perception declines by middle age and decreases further on to older age. The impact of hearing impairment is as detrimental for young and middle-aged as it is for older adults. When the background noise becomes cognitively more demanding, there is a larger decline in speech perception, due to age or hearing impairment. Hearing impairment seems to be the main factor underlying speech perception problems in background noises that cause energetic masking. However, in the event of informational masking, which induces a higher cognitive load, age appears to explain a significant part of the communicative impairment as well. We suggest that the degrading effect of age is mediated by deficiencies in temporal processing and central executive functions. This study may contribute to the improvement of auditory rehabilitation programs aiming to prevent aging persons from missing out on conversations, which, in turn, will improve their quality of life.

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