As humans age, compressive nonlinearity—a hallmark of healthy cochlear function—changes. The nonlinear distortion-component of the distortion product otoacoustic emission (DPOAE) provides a noninvasive gauge of cochlear nonlinearity. Earlier published work has suggested that weakened nonlinearity begins in middle age; the current work extends this investigation into the eight decade of life using advanced DPOAE data collection and analysis methods as well as multiple metrics of nonlinearity, including a test of loudness scaling.
The 2f1−f2 DPOAE was recorded in 20 young adults, 25 middle-aged adults and 32 older adults from f2 = 0.78 to 9.4 kHz with primary tones (f2/f1 = 1.22) swept upward at a rate of 0.5 octave/sec. Only frequencies with audiometric thresholds ≤20 dB HL were included in the analysis and to the extent possible, ears were audiometrically matched to eliminate hearing threshold as a contributing factor to the observed age effects. Input/output functions were generated for the separated distortion-component of the DPOAE to probe compressive nonlinearity of the cochlea, and ipsilateral suppression of the DPOAE was conducted to probe two-tone suppression. To investigate the perceptual effects of weakening nonlinearity on loudness perception, the same subjects performed categorical loudness scaling. Age effects on both DPOAE and loudness scaling variables were assessed, and correlations were conducted between key OAE and perceptual metrics.
Age × Frequency ANOVAs revealed that the compression knee of the DPOAE I/O function occurred at higher stimulus levels in both groups of older adults compared to young adults, suggesting an expanded linear range with aging; also, the compressive slope (growth beyond the knee point) was steeper in older-adults compared to young adults. These results were most notable at high frequencies. ANOVAs including age and auditory threshold as factors confirmed that the age effect observed was independent of threshold. Additionally, in smaller subsets of subjects with audiometrically matched data, these same trends persisted, further ruling out hearing threshold as an influential factor. The growth of DPOAE ipsilateral suppression was shallower near 4 kHz in middle-aged and older adults compared to young adults and elevated suppression thresholds were observed. Results of categorical loudness scaling showed steeper growth of loudness for older adults and, at fixed sensation levels (dB SL), the older-adult group rated tones as louder than did their young-adult counterparts, suggesting abnormal loudness growth and perception. Several correlations between the compression knee of the DPOAE I/O function and key metrics of loudness scaling were significant and accounted for up to one-third of the variance.
Results indicate that the aging cochlea begins to show weakened nonlinearity in middle age and it progressively weakens further into senescence. The perceptual impact of weakened nonlinearity during aging is manifested as abnormal loudness judgments; that is, in older-adult ears, a tone considered comfortable or medium in young-adult ears can be considered loud. The biophysical origin of this weakened nonlinearity is not known. It is hypothesized to reflect aging-related damage to, or loss of, outer hair cells and their stereocilia. More work is warranted to better define the perceptual impact of a linearized cochlear response in older adults and to consider how this deficit might impact the fitting of hearing aids and other intervention strategies.