Publication Date

2011

Abstract

Objectives: Although age-related declines in perceiving spoken language are well established, the primary focus of research has been on perception of phonemes, words, and sentences. In contrast, relatively few investigations have been directed at establishing the effects of age on the comprehension of extended spoken passages. Moreover, most previous work has used extreme-group designs in which the performance of a group of young adults is contrasted with that of a group of older adults and little if any information is available regarding changes in listening comprehension across the adult lifespan. Accordingly, the goals of the current investigation were to determine whether there are age differences in listening comprehension across the adult lifespan and, if so, whether similar trajectories are observed for age-related changes in auditory sensitivity and listening comprehension. Design: This study used a cross-sectional lifespan design in which approximately 60 individuals in each of 7 decades, from age 20 to 89 yr (a total of 433 participants), were tested on three different measures of listening comprehension. In addition, we obtained measures of auditory sensitivity from all participants. Results: Changes in auditory sensitivity across the adult lifespan exhibited the progressive high-frequency loss typical of age-related hearing impairment. Performance on the listening comprehension measures, however, demonstrated a very different pattern, with scores on all measures remaining relatively stable until age 65 to 70 yr, after which significant declines were observed. Follow-up analyses indicated that this same general pattern was observed across three different types of passages (lectures, interviews, and narratives) and three different question types (information, integration, and inference). Multiple regression analyses indicated that low-frequency pure-tone average was the single largest contributor to age-related variance in listening comprehension for individuals older than 65 yr, but that age accounted for significant variance even after controlling for auditory sensitivity. Conclusions: Results suggest that age-related reductions in auditory sensitivity account for a sizable portion of individual variance in listening comprehension that was observed across the adult lifespan. Other potential contributors including a possible role for age-related declines in perceptual and cognitive abilities are discussed. Clinically, the results suggest that amplification is likely to improve listening comprehension but that increased audibility alone may not be sufficient to maintain listening comprehension beyond age 65 and 70 yr. Additional research will be needed to identify potential target abilities for training or other rehabilitation procedures that could supplement sensory aids to provide additional improvements in listening comprehension.

Document Type

Journal Article

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