To study the effect of chronologic age on central auditory functions using dichotic speech tests and to study whether and how the age effect in dichotic listening is related to cognitive ability.
Dichotic speech tests and cognitive tests were performed on 30 bilaterally hearing-impaired subjects, with a pure-tone average better than 50 dB HL. They were between 42 and 84 yr of age and were divided into an older and a younger group comprising 15 subjects each. The dichotic test material were digits, low-redundancy sentences and consonant-vowel syllables. The subjects reported stimuli heard in both ears (free report) or in one ear (directed report to left or right ear). The cognitive test battery comprised tests focusing on short-term memory, verbal information-processing speed and phonologic processing.
A decreased overall performance in all dichotic speech tests was observed in the older group. In the syllable test the older subjects showed poorer results when focusing on the stimuli heard in the left ear, as compared with when focusing on stimuli heard in the right ear, whereas the younger group showed almost equal results for left- and right ear-focusing conditions. An age effect was also seen in reaction times recorded in the cognitive tests and in the scores of the reading span test. These cognitive parameters correlate with the results of the dichotic test when focusing to the left, but not when focusing to the right in the directed report condition. In the free report condition the overall performance showed a high correlation with cognitive test parameters.
Effects of chronologic age in dichotic speech tests in the elderly have been verified. The degree of effect is dependent on test material, way of reporting and focusing condition. The different listening tasks in dichotic tests put different demands on cognitive ability shown by a varying degree of correlations between cognitive function and dichotic test parameters. Also, the results indicate a strong connection between age-related cognitive decline in the elderly and problems to perceive stimuli presented to the left ear.