Temporal Processing in Low-Frequency Channels: Effects of Age and Hearing Loss in Middle-Aged Listeners

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Background: Hearing loss and age interfere with the auditory system's ability to process temporal changes in the acoustic signal. A key unresolved question is whether high-frequency sensorineural hearing loss (HFSNHL) affects temporal processing in the low-frequency region where hearing loss is minimal or nonexistent. A second unresolved question is whether changes in hearing occur in middle-aged subjects in the absence of HFSNHL.

Purpose: The purpose of this study was twofold: (1) to examine the influence of HFSNHL and aging on the auditory temporal processing abilities of low-frequency auditory channels with normal hearing sensitivity and (2) to examine the relations among gap detection measures, self-assessment reports of understanding speech, and functional measures of speech perception in middle-aged individuals with and without HFSNHL.

Research Design: The subject groups were matched for either age (middle age) or pure-tone sensitivity (with or without hearing loss) to study the effects of age and HFSNHL on behavioral and functional measures of temporal processing and word recognition performance. These effects were analyzed by individual repeated-measures analyses of variance. Post hoc analyses were performed for each significant main effect and interaction. The relationships among the measures were analyzed with Pearson correlations.

Study Sample: Eleven normal-hearing young adults (YNH), eight normal-hearing middle-aged adults (MANH), and nine middle-aged adults with HFSNHL were recruited for this study. Normal hearing sensitivity was defined as pure-tone thresholds ≤25 dB HL for octave frequencies from 250 to 8000 Hz. HFSNHL was defined as pure-tone thresholds ≤25 dB HL from 250 to 2000 Hz and ≥35 dB HL from 3000 to 8000 Hz.

Data Collection and Analysis: Gap detection thresholds (GDTs) were measured under within-channel and between-channel conditions with the stimulus spectrum limited to regions of normal hearing sensitivity for the HFSNHL group (i.e., <2000 >Hz). Self-perceived hearing problems were measured by a questionnaire (Abbreviated Profile of Hearing Aid Benefit), and word recognition performance was assessed under four conditions: quiet and babble, with and without low-pass filtering (cutoff frequency = 2000 Hz).

Results: The effects of HFSNHL and age were found for gap detection, self-perceived hearing problems, and word recognition in noise. The presence of HFSNHL significantly increased GDTs for stimuli presented in regions of normal pure-tone sensitivity. In addition, middle-aged subjects with normal hearing sensitivity reported significantly more problems hearing in background noise than the young normal-hearing subjects. Significant relationships between self-report measures of hearing ability in background noise and word recognition in babble were found.

Conclusions: The conclusions from the present study are twofold: (1) HFSNHL may have an off-channel impact on auditory temporal processing, and (2) presenescent changes in the auditory system of MANH subjects increased self-perceived problems hearing in background noise and decreased functional performance in background noise compared with YNH subjects.