This study was designed to examine how speaking rate affects auditory-only, visual-only, and auditory-visual speech perception across the adult lifespan. In addition, the study examined the extent to which unimodal (auditory-only and visual-only) performance predicts auditory-visual performance across a range of speaking rates. The authors hypothesized significant Age × Rate interactions in all three modalities and that unimodal performance would account for a majority of the variance in auditory-visual speech perception for speaking rates that are both slower and faster than normal.
Participants (N = 145), ranging in age from 22 to 92, were tested in conditions with auditory-only, visual-only, and auditory-visual presentations using a closed-set speech perception test. Five different speaking rates were presented in each modality: an unmodified (normal rate), two rates that were slower than normal, and two rates that were faster than normal. Signal to noise ratios were set individually to produce approximately 30% correct identification in the auditory-only condition and this signal to noise ratio was used in the auditory-only and auditory-visual conditions.
Age × Rate interactions were observed for the fastest speaking rates in both the visual-only and auditory-visual conditions. Unimodal performance accounted for at least 60% of the variance in auditory-visual performance for all five speaking rates.
The findings demonstrate that the disproportionate difficulty that older adults have with rapid speech for auditory-only presentations can also be observed with visual-only and auditory-visual presentations. Taken together, the present analyses of age and individual differences indicate a generalized age-related decline in the ability to understand speech produced at fast speaking rates. The finding that auditory-visual speech performance was almost entirely predicted by unimodal performance across all five speaking rates has important clinical implications for auditory-visual speech perception and the ability of older adults to use visual speech information to compensate for age-related hearing loss.