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Competing Speech Perception in Older and Younger Adults: Behavioral and Eye-Movement Evidence

Helfer, Karen S.1; Staub, Adrian2

doi: 10.1097/AUD.0b013e3182a830cf
Research Articles

Objectives: The purpose of this study was to examine eye-movement patterns in older and younger adults to identify differences in how they respond to both to-be-attended and to-be-ignored speech.

Design: The study described in this article used an eye-tracking paradigm to provide insight into the factors underlying competing speech understanding in older (n = 23) and younger (n = 22) listeners. Participants attended to a sentence presented in one ear and were instructed to click on a visually displayed word that was heard in that ear while their eye movements were monitored. A foil word also was shown on the screen. Either no sound, steady state noise, or competing speech was presented to the other ear.

Results: Comparisons between younger and older listeners on all three types of indicators measured in this study (percent correct, response time, and eye movement patterns) demonstrated that older adults were more greatly affected by competing speech than were younger adults. Differences between the groups could not be attributed to the presence of hearing loss in the older participants, as performance for all subjects was at ceiling in quiet and none of the performance metrics was significantly associated with degree of hearing loss.

Conclusions: Results of this study support the idea that age-related changes other than lack of audibility or susceptibility to energetic masking negatively affect the ability to understand speech in the presence of a competing message.

The present study used an eye-tracking paradigm to quantify differences between older and younger adults in the ability to attend to a sentence presented in one ear while ignoring speech or noise presented to the other ear. Participants were instructed to click on a word presented on a computer screen, which was in the to-be-attended sentence. A second word displayed on the screen either was or was not from the to-be-ignored sentence. All three metrics of performance (percent correct, response time, and eye-movement patterns) indicated that older adults experienced greater difficulty in competing speech conditions than did younger adults. These results support the idea that older adults have problems in competing speech situations for reasons beyond lack of audibility or susceptibility to energetic masking.

Departments of 1Communication Disorders and 2Psychology, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Amherst, Massachusetts, USA.

This work was supported by NIDCD R01 DC01623.

Portions of these data were presented at the American Auditory Society Conference, Scottsdale, AZ, March 2011.

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Address for correspondence: Karen S. Helfer, Department of Communication Disorders, University of Massachusetts Amherst, 358 N. Pleasant Street, Amherst, MA 01003, USA. E-mail

© 2014 by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins