Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology

Listening in Aging Adults: From Discourse Comprehension to Psychoacoustics

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology

Listening in Aging Adults: From Discourse Comprehension to Psychoacoustics

Article excerpt

Abstract Older adults, whether or not they have clinically significant hearing loss, have more trouble than their younger counterparts understanding speech in everyday life. These age-related difficulties in speech understanding may be attributed to changes in higher-- level cognitive processes such as language comprehension, memory, attention, and cognitive slowing, or to lower-level sensory and perceptual processes. A complicating factor in determining how these sources might contribute to age-related declines in speech understanding is that they are highly correlated. Experimenters have typically focused either on cognitive declines or sensory declines in artificially optimized test conditions. In contrast, our approach focuses on the complex interactions between age-related changes in cognitive and perceptual factors that affect spoken language comprehension, especially in nonideal, realistic conditions. In this article, we describe our attempts to systematically investigate sensory-cognitive interactions in controlled experimental situations. We begin by looking at experimental conditions that closely approximate everyday listening, and show that older adults do indeed experience deficits in spoken language comprehension relative to younger adults in these conditions. We then review further experiments designed to isolate more precisely the cognitive and perceptual sources of these age-related differences and how they vary with listening condition. in large part, we find that agerelated changes in speech understanding are a consequence of auditory declines.

As many as one-third of seniors find that it is difficult to understand conversations in everyday listening situations (Hamilton-Wentworth District Health Council, 1988; see also CHABA, 1988). Among the more common complaints are that talkers seem to mumble or talk too fast and that it is hard to hear when it is noisy. In general, it is especially difficult for older adults to follow a conversation when there are multiple talkers, or when talkers or topics change. Because they miss parts of what is said and lack confidence in the accuracy of their understanding of the parts they do hear, older communicators are prone to anxiety or frustration, and may avoid or be excluded from social interactions.

The speech understanding difficulties of older listeners may arise from a number of possible sources. The difficulties could be in higher-level cognitive processes such as language comprehension, memory, attention, and cognitive slowing, or they could be in lower-level sensory and perceptual processes. A complicating factor in determining how these sources might contribute to age-related declines in speech understanding is that they are highly correlated. Perceptual declines in older adults are highly associated with declines in cognition (e.g., Baltes & Lindenberger, 1997; Lindenberger & Baltes, 1994; Uhlmann, Larson, Rees, Koepsell, & Duckert, 1989). In turn, both perceptual and cognitive declines are linked to emotional and social problems and even to mortality (e.g., Appolonio, Carabellese, Frattola, & Trabucchi, 1996; Cacciatore, Napoli, Abete, Marciano, Triassi, & Rengo, 1999; Naramura, Nakanishi, Tatara, Ishiyama, Shiraishi, & Yamamoto, 1999; Seniors Research Group, 1999). Thus, it is very important to understand how the interplay of perceptual and cognitive factors contributes to the speech understanding difficulties of older listeners so that they can be remediated.

The need to consider each of these levels and how they inter-relate has received increasing recognition over the last decade (e.g., Baltes & Lindenberger, 1994; CHABA, 1988). Furthermore, the need to determine how older adults perform in naturalistic, as opposed to laboratory, conditions has also been highlighted (e.g., Stern & Carstensen, 2000; WHO, 2001). Nevertheless, up until now, experimenters have typically focused either on cognitive declines or sensory declines in artificially optimized test conditions. …

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