Directing selective attention in noisy environments is affected by hearing loss across the lifespan

Authors: Emma Holmes1

1University College London

Background: People often face the challenge of understanding speech when competing speech is present (i.e., cocktail party listening). Listeners with normal hearing can deploy spatial attention to improve speech intelligibility in spatialised settings, but we do not fully understand how this ability is affected by hearing loss, and whether the stage of life at which hearing loss occurred has different consequences for selective attention.

Methods: In the experiments I will describe, participants were cued to selectively attend to a talker on their left or right side. They heard three phrases spoken by different talkers and were asked to report words spoken by the cued talker. Across different studies, participants were either young adults with normal hearing, children with early-onset hearing loss, or older adults with age-related hearing loss. We have modelled the underlying processes using active inference, which treats selective attention as a Bayesian inference problem.

Results: We have found that the ability to direct selective attention to a talker of interest is degraded by hearing loss. This seems to apply to both early-onset hearing loss and age-related hearing loss. In contrast, older age itself (in the absence of hearing loss) does not degrade the ability to direct spatial attention.

Conclusions: When trying to predict how a listener (with or without hearing loss) will perform in the types of noisy environments that are characteristic of everyday life, it is important to consider their ability to direct selective attention to speech. A degraded ability to direct attention to speech likely poses challenges for people with hearing loss beyond loss of audibility.