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date: 09 December 2018

Summary and Keywords

The comprehension of spoken language is a complex skill that requires the listener to map the acoustic input onto the meaningful units of speech (phonemes, syllables, and words). At the sentence level, the listener must detect the syntactic structure of the utterance in order to determine the semantic relationships among the spoken words. Each higher level of analysis is thus dependent on successful processing at the prior level, beginning with perception at the phoneme and word levels.

Unlike reading, where one can use eye movements to control the rate of input, speech is a transient signal that moves past the ears at an average rate of 140 to 180 words per minute. Although seemingly automatic in young adults, comprehension of speech can represent a greater challenge for older adults, who often exhibit a combination of reduced working memory resources and slower processing rates across a number of perceptual and cognitive domains. An additional challenge arises from reduced hearing acuity that often occurs in adult aging. A major concern is that, even with only mild hearing loss, the listening effort required for success at the perceptual level may draw resources that would ordinarily be available for encoding what has been heard in memory, or comprehension of syntactically complex speech. On the positive side, older adults have compensatory support from preserved linguistic knowledge, including the procedural rules for its use. Our understanding of speech perception in adult aging thus rests on our understanding of such sensory-cognitive interactions.

Keywords: speech comprehension, adult aging, cognition, syntactic complexity, age-related hearing loss

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