Study of hearing, speech loss in aging population

At the end of 2011, Statistics New Zealand indicated 13 per cent of the population were older than 65, and predicted that, in the next 20 years, the figure would increase to more than 20 per cent.

By 2026, one in five New Zealanders will be older than 65 and those aged 90 or older is expected to double on 2013 numbers.

University of Canterbury researcher Associate Professor Megan McAuliffe, who leads language and ageing research at UC’s NZ Institute of Language, Brain and Behaviour, has been researching how older people cope with hearing loss and speech problems associated with neurological disease.

“Every day healthy ageing results in a number of detrimental effects to the hearing and speech mechanisms. Age-related hearing loss results in difficulty understanding speech on a daily basis, memory decline can affect the ability to follow conversations, and changes to the muscles of voice and speech produces a characteristic older sounding voice.

“Reduced intelligibility and speech problems are common in neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and stroke. These issues usually occur in older people and reduce their quality of life.

“Our research looks at how older people understand the speech of those with neurological problems such as Parkinson’s disease and stroke. We expect that due to age related changes in the hearing mechanism—and therefore the ability to understand speech in more difficult listening conditions—that older people will indeed find this more challenging.

“Interestingly, older people draw upon their wealth of accumulated experience to compensate for these difficulties. These include reliance on their large vocabularies and understanding of how speech is produced.

“For those with neurological problems such as Parkinson’s disease, the issues encountered in normal ageing are only exacerbated, and the ability to compensate for them heavily reduced.

“That said, we do not have a good understanding of how the ability to understand speech is affected by ageing, or the degree to which difficulties perceiving speech are influenced by individual differences in degree of hearing loss, cognitive function, general language experience and social phenomena,” Professor McAuliffe says. 

Her research provides an opportunity for practical outcomes for healthy ageing including improvement of technology, rehabilitation of speech disorders and optimisation of communication abilities into old age.

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Kip Brook
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University of Canterbury
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