The Effects of Age on Sensory Thresholds and Temporal Gap Detection in Hearing, Vision, and Touch

By Humes, Larry E.; Busey, Thomas A. et al. | Attention, Perception and Psychophysics, May 2009 | Go to article overview

The Effects of Age on Sensory Thresholds and Temporal Gap Detection in Hearing, Vision, and Touch


Humes, Larry E., Busey, Thomas A., Craig, James C., Kewley-Port, Diane, Attention, Perception and Psychophysics


Differences in sensory function between young (n = 42, 18-31 years old) and older (n = 137, 60-88 years old) adults were examined for auditory, visual, and tactile measures of threshold sensitivity and temporal acuity (gap-detection threshold). For all but one of the psychophysical measures (visual gap detection), multiple measures were obtained at different stimulus frequencies for each modality and task. This resulted in a total of 14 dependent measures, each based on four to six adaptive psychophysical estimates of 75% correct performance. In addition, all participants completed the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (Wechsler, 1997). Mean data confirmed previously observed differences in performance between young and older adults for 13 of the 14 dependent measures (all but visual threshold at a flicker frequency of 4 Hz). Correlational and principal-components factor analyses performed on the data from the 137 older adults were generally consistent with task and modality independence of the psychophysical measures.

Millions of older Americans have concurrent deficits in hearing and vision, the two most frequently studied senses in large-scale studies of older adults, with prevalence rates for comorbidity of visual and auditory impairments estimated at 7%-12% among older adults (e.g., Campbell, Crews, Moriarty, Zack, & Blackman, 1999; Klein, Cruickshanks, Klein, Nondahl, & Wiley, 1998). For each of these sensory modalities considered independently, age-related decline in threshold sensitivity has been well established (e.g., International Standards Organization [ISO], 2000, for hearing; Kim & Mayer, 1994, and Owsley, Sekuler, & Siemsen, 1983, for vision). There is also evidence of a similar age-related decline in vibrotactile threshold sensitivity (e.g., Gescheider, Bolanowski, Hall, Hoffman, & Verrillo, 1994; Verrillo & Verrillo, 1985).

Despite this now long-standing awareness of age-related declines in threshold sensitivity in each of several sensory modalities, there have been very few laboratory studies of the effects of aging on sensory function in multiple modalities within the same group of participants. Typically, researchers have examined age-related changes in processing in the sensory modality within their area of expertise. Seldom has sensory processing in more than one modality been studied carefully in the laboratory in older adults. An exception to this general statement is the study by Stevens, Cruz, Marks, and Lakatos (1998), in which taste, smell, thermal sensitivity (cooling), vibrotaction (both low- and high-frequency), and hearing (both lowand high-frequency) were all measured in the laboratory for young and elderly participants (N 5 37). Sensitivity thresholds were measured for each modality, and, except for one sensory measure (low-frequency hearing), group differences in sensory threshold between the young and elderly individuals were observed. Moreover, there were significant positive correlations between sensory threshold and age in each modality, as well as significant correlations of thresholds across modalities. Stevens et al. also reported a strong positive correlation between cognitive function and sensory thresholds. They suggested that both sensory and cognitive function might be affected by a similar common factor or mechanism that declines with age.

This suggestion by Stevens et al. (1998) is akin to the common-cause hypothesis observed in larger scale field studies of aging (Baltes & Lindenberger, 1997; Lindenberger & Baltes, 1994), a hypothesis that has received considerable attention in the aging literature over the past 20-30 years (for a review, see Hofer, Berg, & Era, 2003), with generally mixed support. For example, it has been argued that the support for this hypothesis is largely an artifact of the research design and attributable to the pooling of data from measures of sensory and cognitive function across extremes of the adult age continuum, which can inflate correlations among these measures (e. …

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