Starkey Research & Clinical Blog

Listening gets more effortful in your forties

DeGeest, S., Keppler, H. & Corthals, P. (2015) The effect of age on listening effort. Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research 58(5), 1592-1600.

This editorial discusses the clinical implications of an independent research study and does not represent the opinions of the original authors.

The ability to understand conversational speech in everyday situations is affected by many obstacles. A large proportion of our work involves determining the best treatment plan to help hearing-impaired patients overcome these obstacles.  Though understanding speech in noise poses difficulty for hearing-impaired individuals of all ages, several studies have indicated that in the absence of hearing loss, older adults face increased challenges in noisy environments (Pichora-Fuller & Singh, 2006; Duquesnoy, 1983; Dubno et al., 1984; Helfer & Freyman, 2008); some reports suggest that middle-aged adults have significantly poorer speech recognition in noise compared to young adults. (Helfer & Vargo, 2009).

Competing environmental noise reduces the audibility of acoustic speech information, increasing reliance upon visual, situational and contextual cues, that in turn requires a greater delegation of cognitive resources (Schneider et al., 2002), making listening more effortful. Increases in listening effort in noise could be related to decreases in hearing thresholds or available cognitive resources, as both are known to decrease with advancing age.  But the fact that normal-hearing individuals also experience more difficulty hearing in noise suggests that factors other than hearing loss may be involved, including working memory, processing speed and selective attention (Akeroyd, 2008; Pichora-Fuller et al., 1995).

The work of DeGeest and colleagues examined listening effort and speech recognition in adult subjects from 20 to 77 years of age. All of the subjects were determined to have normal “age corrected” hearing thresholds from 250Hz through 8000Hz, though older subjects had average high-frequency pure tone thresholds in the mild to moderate range of hearing loss. Subjects over age 60 were screened with the Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA; Nasreddine et al., 2005), no specific cognitive performance measures were included in data analysis.  Listening effort was evaluated using a dual-task paradigm in which subjects performed a speech recognition task while simultaneously performing a visual memory task. Speech recognition ability was measured with 10-item sets of two-syllable digits, presented at two SNR levels: +2dB SNR and -10dB SNR.  Performance on the dual-task presentation was examined in comparison to baseline measures of each test in isolation. Listening effort was defined as the change in performance on the visual memory task when the dual-task condition was compared to baseline. Speech recognition ability was not expected to change from baseline when measured in the dual-task condition.

The investigators found that listening effort increased in parallel with advancing age. Though subjects were initially determined to have “age corrected” normal hearing, which meant some participants had high frequency hearing loss, the correlation between listening effort and age was maintained even when the factors of pure tone threshold and baseline word recognition performance were controlled. Of note was the observation that listening effort started to increase notably between +2dB and -10dB SNRs at ages of 40.5 years and 44.1 years, respectively. Their determination that listening effort begins to increase in the mid 40’s is in agreement with other research that reported cognitive declines beginning around age 45 years (Singh-Manoux et al., 2012).  The authors suggest that further investigations of listening effort and word recognition in middle-aged and older adults should examine cognitive ability in more detail with specific tests of working memory, processing speed and selection attention included in the data analyses.

Although middle-aged adults are less likely to demonstrate outward effects of cognitive decline than older adults, the should not be regarded as immune to changes in cognitive ability and resulting listening effort.  Middle-aged individuals are more likely than their older counterparts to be working full time and may have more active lifestyles.  Hearing-impaired individuals of middle-age who work in reverberant or noisy environments may face additional challenges to job performance if they are also experiencing changes in processing speed or memory or if they struggle with even mild attentional deficits.  These are tangible considerations that might impact the entirety of treatment plan development, from the selection of hearing aids and assistive technologies to the communication and counseling strategies that are selected for the patient and their family members.


Akeroyd, M. (2008). Are individual differences in speech reception related to individual differences in cognitive ability? A survey of twenty experimental studies with normal and hearing-impaired adults. International Journal of Audiology 47 (Suppl 2), S53-S71.

DeGeest, S., Keppler, H. & Corthals, P. (2015) The effect of age on listening effort. Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research 58(5), 1592-1600.

Desjardins, J. & Doherty, K. (2014). The effect of hearing aid noise reduction on listening effort in hearing-impaired adults. Ear and Hearing 35 (6), 600-610.

Dubno, J., Dirks, D. & Morgan, D. (1984). Effects of age and mild hearing loss on speech recognition in noise. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 76, 87-96.

Duquesnoy, J. (1983). The intelligibility of sentences in quiet and noise in aged listeners. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 74, 1136-1144.

Helfer, K. & Freyman, R. (2008).  Aging and speech on speech masking. Ear and Hearing 29, 87-98.

Keppler, H., Dhooge, I., Corthals, P., Maes, L., D’haenens, W., Bockstael, A. & Vinck, B. (2010). The effects of aging on evoked otoacoustic emissions and efferent suppression of transient evoked otoacoustic emissions. Clinical Neurophysiology 121, 359-365.

Nasreddine, Z., Phillips, M., Bedirian, V., Charbonneau, S., Whitehead, V., Collin, I. & Chertkow, H. (2005).  The Montreal Cognitive Assessment, MoCA: A brief screening tool for mild cognitive impairment. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society 53, 695-699.

Pichora-Fuller, M., Schneider, B. & Daneman, M. (1995).  How young and old adults listen to and remember speech in noise. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 97, 593-608.

Pichora-Fuller, M. & Singh, G. (2006). Effects of age on auditory and cognitive processing: implications for hearing aid fitting and audiologic rehabilitation. Trends in Amplification 10, 29-59.

Sarampalis, A., Kalluri, S. & Edwards, B. (2009). Objective measures of listening effort: Effects of background noise and noise reduction. Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research 52, 1230-1240.

Schneider, B., Daneman, M. & Pichora-Fuller, M. (2002). Listening in aging adults: from discourse comprehension to psychoacoustics. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology 56, 139-152.