Age-related difficulty recognizing words predicted by brain differences

Older adults may have difficulty understanding speech because of age-related changes in brain tissue, according to new research in the May 13 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience. The study shows that older adults with the most difficulty understanding spoken words had less brain tissue in a region important for speech recognition. The findings may help explain why hearing aids do not benefit all people with age-related hearing difficulties.

Although some hearing loss can be a normal part of aging, many older adults complain about difficulty understanding speech, especially in challenging listening conditions like crowded restaurants. Research has suggested that this decline in speech recognition is independent of hearing loss.

To identify what causes the decline in speech recognition, the researchers, led by Kelly Harris, PhD, at the Medical University of South Carolina, scanned the brains of 18 younger adults (19-39 years old) and 18 older adults (61-79 years old) as they tried to identify words in listening conditions that varied in difficulty. During a challenging listening condition, the older adults repeated fewer words correctly than did the younger adults, consistent with previous studies.

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