How Age Affects Speech Comprehension

Recent research has provided a wealth of new information about hearing loss and the brain, from where hearing actually happens — in the brain, not the ears — to how hearing loss can lead to issues such as dementia and depression. But the results from a new study suggest the brain even processes speech differently as you age.

A new study1 out of the University of Maryland suggests that the aging brain naturally loses the ability to make sense of competing noise sources, even in those with no hearing loss.

Two groups of adults, one with an average age of 22 and one with an average age of 65, were tested for speech comprehension in different environments: in quiet, in four levels of background noise, and with more than one person distinctly talking. All participants had no measurable hearing loss.

In the older group, two parts of the brain had more difficulty processing speech compared to the younger group. Specifically, decline in effective communication between areas of the cortex reduced the brain’s ability to navigate background noise. But results from the study also suggest that older adults can process sound easier if background noise is well managed.

Today’s hearing solutions are uniquely suited to help your brain process speech in background noise. There are now hearing devices engineered to connect via an app to your smartphone. These devices have advanced noise-reduction technology, and you can use the app to make minor adjustments to filter out even more background noise. You can even use the GPS feature to save the settings for your favorite public spots, and the app will change your settings automatically whenever you’re at those locations.

Another solution is a hearing loop. Many of your favorite public places — church, concert halls, movie theaters — might already be equipped with one. A hearing loop sends a sound signal directly to any hearing technology set to the t-coil (or telecoil) setting, eliminating any background noise. Most of the hearing devices sold today have a t-coil already, and the technology is universal — any aid with a t-coil, regardless of brand, will pick up the signal from any hearing loop within range.


  1. Presacco A, Simon JZ, Anderson A. Evidence of degraded representation of speech in noise, in the aging midbrain and cortex. J Neurophysiol. 2016;116(5):2346–2355. http://jn.physiology.org/content/116/5/2346. Accessed November 29, 2016.

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