Few studies have examined the long-term effect of age at implantation on outcomes using multiple data points in children with cochlear implants. The goal of this study was to determine whether age at implantation has a significant, lasting impact on speech perception, language, and reading performance for children with prelingual hearing loss.
A linear mixed-model framework was used to determine the effect of age at implantation on speech perception, language, and reading abilities in 83 children with prelingual hearing loss who received cochlear implants by the age of 4 years. The children were divided into two groups based on their age at implantation: (1) under 2 years of age and (2) between 2 and 3.9 years of age. Differences in model-specified mean scores between groups were compared at annual intervals from 5 to 13 years of age for speech perception, and 7 to 11 years of age for language and reading.
After controlling for communication mode, device configuration, and preoperative pure-tone average, there was no significant effect of age at implantation for receptive language by 8 years of age, expressive language by 10 years of age, reading by 7 years of age. In terms of speech-perception outcomes, significance varied between 7 and 13 years of age, with no significant difference in speech-perception scores between groups at ages 7, 11, and 13 years. Children who used oral communication (OC) demonstrated significantly higher speech-perception scores than children who used total communication (TC). OC users tended to have higher expressive language scores than TC users, although this did not reach significance. There was no significant difference between OC and TC users for receptive language or reading scores.
Speech perception, language, and reading performance continue to improve over time for children implanted before 4 years of age. The present results indicate that the effect of age at implantation diminishes with time, particularly for higher-order skills such as language and reading. Some children who receive cochlear implants after the age of 2 years have the capacity to approximate the language and reading skills of their earlier-implanted peers, suggesting that additional factors may moderate the influence of age at implantation on outcomes over time.