The purpose of this article was to evaluate factors that influence the listening effort experienced when processing speech for people with hearing loss. Specifically, the change in listening effort resulting from introducing hearing aids, visual cues, and background noise was evaluated. An additional exploratory aim was to investigate the possible relationships between the magnitude of listening effort change and individual listeners’ working memory capacity, verbal processing speed, or lipreading skill.
Twenty-seven participants with bilateral sensorineural hearing loss were fitted with linear behind-the-ear hearing aids and tested using a dual-task paradigm designed to evaluate listening effort. The primary task was monosyllable word recognition and the secondary task was a visual reaction time task. The test conditions varied by hearing aids (unaided, aided), visual cues (auditory-only, auditory-visual), and background noise (present, absent). For all participants, the signal to noise ratio was set individually so that speech recognition performance in noise was approximately 60% in both the auditory-only and auditory-visual conditions. In addition to measures of listening effort, working memory capacity, verbal processing speed, and lipreading ability were measured using the Automated Operational Span Task, a Lexical Decision Task, and the Revised Shortened Utley Lipreading Test, respectively.
In general, the effects measured using the objective measure of listening effort were small (~10 msec). Results indicated that background noise increased listening effort, and hearing aids reduced listening effort, while visual cues did not influence listening effort. With regard to the individual variables, verbal processing speed was negatively correlated with hearing aid benefit for listening effort; faster processors were less likely to derive benefit. Working memory capacity, verbal processing speed, and lipreading ability were related to benefit from visual cues. No variables were related to changes in listening effort resulting from the addition of background noise.
The results of this study suggest that, on the average, hearing aids can reduce objectively measured listening effort. Furthermore, people who are slow verbal processors are more likely to derive hearing aid benefit for listening effort, perhaps because hearing aids improve the auditory input. Although background noise increased objective listening effort, no listener characteristic predicted susceptibility to noise. With regard to visual cues, while there was no effect on average of providing visual cues, there were some listener characteristics that were related to changes in listening effort with vision. Although these relationships are exploratory, they do suggest that these inherent listener characteristics like working memory capacity, verbal processing speed, and lipreading ability may influence susceptibility to changes in listening effort and thus warrant further study.