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Effects of Age and Working Memory Capacity on Speech Recognition Performance in Noise Among Listeners With Normal Hearing

Gordon-Salant, Sandra; Cole, Stacey Samuels

doi: 10.1097/AUD.0000000000000316
Research Articles

Objectives: This study aimed to determine if younger and older listeners with normal hearing who differ on working memory span perform differently on speech recognition tests in noise. Older adults typically exhibit poorer speech recognition scores in noise than younger adults, which is attributed primarily to poorer hearing sensitivity and more limited working memory capacity in older than younger adults. Previous studies typically tested older listeners with poorer hearing sensitivity and shorter working memory spans than younger listeners, making it difficult to discern the importance of working memory capacity on speech recognition. This investigation controlled for hearing sensitivity and compared speech recognition performance in noise by younger and older listeners who were subdivided into high and low working memory groups. Performance patterns were compared for different speech materials to assess whether or not the effect of working memory capacity varies with the demands of the specific speech test. The authors hypothesized that (1) normal-hearing listeners with low working memory span would exhibit poorer speech recognition performance in noise than those with high working memory span; (2) older listeners with normal hearing would show poorer speech recognition scores than younger listeners with normal hearing, when the two age groups were matched for working memory span; and (3) an interaction between age and working memory would be observed for speech materials that provide contextual cues.

Design: Twenty-eight older (61 to 75 years) and 25 younger (18 to 25 years) normal-hearing listeners were assigned to groups based on age and working memory status. Northwestern University Auditory Test No. 6 words and Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers sentences were presented in noise using an adaptive procedure to measure the signal-to-noise ratio corresponding to 50% correct performance. Cognitive ability was evaluated with two tests of working memory (Listening Span Test and Reading Span Test) and two tests of processing speed (Paced Auditory Serial Addition Test and The Letter Digit Substitution Test).

Results: Significant effects of age and working memory capacity were observed on the speech recognition measures in noise, but these effects were mediated somewhat by the speech signal. Specifically, main effects of age and working memory were revealed for both words and sentences, but the interaction between the two was significant for sentences only. For these materials, effects of age were observed for listeners in the low working memory groups only. Although all cognitive measures were significantly correlated with speech recognition in noise, working memory span was the most important variable accounting for speech recognition performance.

Conclusions: The results indicate that older adults with high working memory capacity are able to capitalize on contextual cues and perform as well as young listeners with high working memory capacity for sentence recognition. The data also suggest that listeners with normal hearing and low working memory capacity are less able to adapt to distortion of speech signals caused by background noise, which requires the allocation of more processing resources to earlier processing stages. These results indicate that both younger and older adults with low working memory capacity and normal hearing are at a disadvantage for recognizing speech in noise.

This study examined differences in speech recognition performance in noise by listeners with normal hearing sensitivity who differ in age and working memory capacity. Signal-to-noise ratios corresponding to 50% correct performance were measured for words and sentences. Effects of age and working memory were significant, with younger listeners performing better than older listeners, and listeners with high working memory performing better than those with low working memory. However, these group effects varied somewhat with speech material. The findings indicate that listeners with normal hearing and low working memory capacity, regardless of age, have difficulty recognizing speech signals in noise.

Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences, University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland, USA.

Received July 20, 2015; accepted February 29, 2016.

The authors declare no other conflict of interest.

Address for correspondence: Sandra Gordon-Salant, Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences, University of Maryland at College Park, College Park, Sciences 0100 Lefrak Hall, MD 20742, USA. E-mail:

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