Speech communication in older adults: an acoustic and perceptual investigation

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Speech Hearing and Phonetic Science

Abstract

Speech communication can be difficult for older people, due to the combined effects of age-related hearing loss, which is common over the age of 65, age-related decline in the quality of phonation and speech articulation, and cognitive problems such as poorer short-term memory and processing speed. Past studies of how older individuals perceive and produce speech sounds have tended to consider these abilities independently of each other using controlled materials, such as read words or sentences. These studies tell us little about how older speakers function when using speech for communicative purposes, and how these various factors interact. For example, it has been shown that older people benefit from seeing their interlocutor in conversations, but audiovisual speech places greater demands on cognitive processing than auditory speech which leads to increased listener effort and reduced information recall.
In our project, we propose to gain a comprehensive account of older people's speech production and perception in situations involving communication with another individual. Adults with age-related hearing loss and the rarer group of older adults with normal hearing will be included as well as younger adult controls. In Study 1, communication with another speaker, while reading sentences or completing a problem-solving task, will either be in good listening conditions, where both speakers hear each other normally, or in adverse conditions, where the participant has to get their message across to another speaker who has a simulated hearing loss or when both are speaking in a noisy background. These comparisons will enable us to get a sense of the degree to which an older person is able to adapt their speech to overcome difficult listening conditions, a skill which is of paramount importance in speech communication in everyday life. We will obtain high-quality digital recordings of the participants' speech but will also, via sensors placed on the neck, record information about their vocal fold vibration, which determines the quality of their voice. Video recordings will also be analysed to investigate whether older speakers make use of eye gaze and head gestures to signal aspects of discourse such as turn-taking and back-channelling (e.g., saying 'okay' to signal understanding), to the same degree as younger speakers. In Study 2, older and younger listeners with normal and impaired hearing will be presented some of the sentence materials recorded in Study 1 by all speaker groups in good and adverse listening conditions. Tests will be presented in both auditory-alone and audiovisual conditions. Intelligibility tests will be run to see what impact age, hearing status and visual cues have on speech understanding and to see whether the 'clear speech' adaptations made by older speakers to counter the effects of poor communication conditions gives the same benefit to that of younger speakers. Sentence recall tests will also be run to investigate whether the listening effort is reduced listening to 'clear speech'.
This project will lead to a better understanding of the effects of ageing on speech communication and of the various contributing factors to potentially degraded speech communication in a population of 'healthy aged' individuals. These benchmarks will be of use for practitioners such as speech and language therapists and audiologists who work on aspects of communication with older people who have health complications. A better understanding of communication difficulties that older individuals experience and of their strategies to overcome these difficulties will also assist professionals such as social workers and care professionals who work to improve quality of life for older people, as well as developers of speech technology devices for telemedicine and remote monitoring. Importantly, this research will also contribute to our basic understanding of speech perception and production development across the lifespan.

Planned Impact

Although this project is primarily a basic science project concerned with advancing our knowledge of the impact of ageing on speech communication in good and adverse conditions, we consider that the work has the potential to have impact in a number of fields. The main non-academic beneficiaries of this research, in the short- to medium-term, will be speech and language therapists (SLT), adult social care and charity sectors and, in the longer-term, developers of speech technology applications for older users. Finally a project leading to a better understanding that speech communication in older adults is of wider relevance to the general public.

Speech and Language Therapy: Much of the caseload for speech and language therapists (SLTs) working with adults involves older adults, primarily referred following stroke, which might result in dysarthria. When assessing the impact of stroke on speech production, it is paramount to have some normative data on the effect of ageing on speech articulation in the 'healthy aged' but this information is scarse at present and does not reflect speech produced in communicative settings. Broader information on the interaction between cognitive load, speech production and visual information would also help establish how communication in clients with stroke may differ from an age-appropriate norm.

Adult social care and charity sectors: Social workers responsible for assessing the needs of elderly clients need to consider their ability to communicate effectively as this is an important component of wellbeing. A better understanding of which factors (hearing status, vision, cognitive abilities) seem to have the most influence on communication ability would be important in terms of attracting attention to the needs of older clients for maintaining effective communication and deciding on the provision of appropriate aids and advice for those in regular contact with the elderly client. Some of the charities dealing with the welfare of older adults provide guidance about effective communication (e.g. Alzheimer Society, Sense UK) so further knowledge about the communication in the 'healthy aged' could be used to refine the advice given in this area.

Developers of speech technology: Speech technology applications aimed at older users are likely to increase in coming years, as they can be used as a way to maintain communication remotely, for example, to carry out regular medical monitoring (e.g. of sugar levels, blood pressure) via voice input (e.g. Siri or similar systems) or for remote control of devices in the home. The automatic recognition of the speech of older speakers is challenging due to weak phonation and increased within-speaker variability. Knowledge of the way in which speech of older speakers varies acoustically from that of younger speakers could help adapt ASR devices for use for speech by older users.

Wider public: Given population demographics, most adults in the general public have relatives who are elderly or are themselves within this population, and will likely be experiencing difficulties with communication at times. The effect of ageing on hearing is quite well known by the general public but there is probably a lower degree of public awareness on the effects of ageing on the ability to produce speech clearly and on how effects linked to cognitive processing, such as the complexity of task demands or short-term memory may impact on the ability to speak clearly, especially in challenging situations.
 
Description Our research investigated how older adults (OA) and young adults (YA) make adaptations to the speech that they produce to maximise communication in both good and challenging conditions. Using collaborative tasks between pairs of speakers, we investigated (a) the acoustic-phonetic adaptations that participants made to overcome the effects of different types of interference and (b) the perceptual effects of these adaptations.
(1) Production of elderLUCID corpus. Our study collected a large corpus of high-quality spontaneous and read speech recordings in different good and challenging communicative conditions in both audio alone and audiovisual modes from 83 participants: 57 OA (of which 30 had a hearing loss OAHL) and 26 YA. Each was paired with a conversational partner. We also collected background sensory and cognitive measures for each participant. This elderLUCID corpus, with time-aligned orthographic and phoneme-level annotations, is a rich and significant resource which is already in demand by researchers in audiology and in speech technology.
(2) Key finding: In difficult communicative conditions, 'clear speech' adaptations made by older adults are influenced by the presence/absence of a mild hearing loss. When listening was made difficult for a conversational partner (e.g., by simulating a severe hearing loss), older adults with normal hearing (OANH) showed adaptations that were broadly similar to young adults (YA), while older adults with age-related hearing loss (OAHL) showed adaptations more consistent with an increase in vocal effort (similar to shouting). Although increased vocal effort is an effective clear speech strategy, it can lead to vocal strain. OAHL participants also took longer to complete the task in challenging conditions than their peers with normal hearing. The presence of a mild age-related hearing loss, not severe enough for them to wear hearing aids, did therefore affect their communication effectiveness and clear speech adaptations. The fact that OA participants made adaptations to their speech in conditions when only their conversational partner was 'impaired' showed that these adaptations were listener-oriented, in support of Lindblom's hyper-hypo model of speech production.
(3) Key finding: In face-to-face communication, older adults with normal hearing look less at their interlocutor. When individuals could see each other while doing a problem-solving task, OANH participants looked less frequently and for less time at their conversational partners compared to YA. This may be due to a decline in older adults' attention to cues signalling how well a conversation is progressing. OAHL participants looked more frequently and for longer as they have more need for information from visual cues.
(4) Key finding: The speech of older adults is not as intelligible as that of young adults, for either young or older adult listeners, but there is clear speech benefit for OA as well as YA speech. OA speech, when presented in background noise, is not typically as intelligible as YA speech, for both young and older listeners. In particular, when speaking normally, OAHL talkers were less intelligible for OA listener groups. However, when they adopted a clear speaking style, a greater clear speech benefit was obtained for OAHL speech, thus reducing cross-group differences in intelligibility.
Exploitation Route Audiology: We have publicised our research through the MRC-funded OVER-HEAR cross-disciplinary consortium addressing the assessment of hearing aid functionality in complex listening environments. This resulted in researchers from Manchester University requesting to use our elderLUCID corpus for intelligibility estimation research. There is also a planned collaborations, using our diapix task, with audiological researchers from the US Air Force. I have been invited to present our results at a forthcoming meeting of a NATO Research Technical Group called "Speech Understanding of English language in Native and Non-Native Speakers/Listeners in NATO with and without Hearing Loss" and this will give the opportunity to discuss possible funding applications to the US Air Force.
Speech technology: We have publicised our findings via specialist conferences and contacts within the EU-funded INSPIRE and ENRICH networks. Our corpus has been made used by researchers from the University of Crete, for developing automatic 'casual to clear' voice conversion.
Charity/social care sectors: We organised an Information Day attended by older participants and representatives from Action for Hearing loss, the University of the third Age and social work education departments. A professionally-produced 3 page brochure summarising our findings has been sent to a list of organisations across the SLT, audiology and charity/social care sectors.
Public: A lay summary with link to our brochure is available at: https://goo.gl/a1n1eV
A collaboration with sound artist Thor McIntyre-Burnie resulted in a sound installation (Bloomsbury Festival 2016), which focused attention on how noisy environments affect communication in children and older adults (https://goo.gl/iY5rbU).
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Healthcare

URL http://valeriehazan.com/wp/index.php/speech-communication-older-adults-lay-summary/
 
Description The aim of our research was to increase our understanding of the impact of ageing and age-related hearing loss on speech communicating in challenging condition. This project is best described as basic research with potential longer-term societal impact. A key message of our research is that even a mild degree of hearing loss can have an impact on the way that older adults communicate when placed in challenging conditions such as a noisy environment. Our research also suggests strategies that can be used to counter these effects. A lay summary of our research findings has been produced in the form of a three-page open access article in a publication with broad circulation (https://impact.pub/) distributed to 35000 stakeholder readers including funding agencies, policymakers, NGO's, universities, academic agencies, research institutes and private sector. This article is also available in electronic and printed brochure form and has been circulated to a list of stakeholders including charities such as Action for Hearing Loss. Communication of this message to clinicians and hearing aid companies has been via presentations of our work at an event organised by the overHEAR network (http://h2020evotion.eu/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Over-Hear-Programme-Final.pdf) and to the HART (Hearing Applied Research Training) group which focuses on collaborations between research groups and people working in schools/clinical settings.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Healthcare
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services

 
Description AoHL summer studentship scheme
Amount £1,600 (GBP)
Funding ID SG75 
Organisation Action on Hearing Loss 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2017 
End 09/2017
 
Description Research grant
Amount £482,087 (GBP)
Funding ID ES/P002803/1 
Organisation Economic and Social Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2017 
End 05/2020
 
Title elderLUCID audio corpus 
Description This corpus contains extensive recordings for 83 adults, all speakers of Standard Southern British English: 57 older adults aged between 65 to 84 years of which 30 had normal hearing (OANH) and 27 had mild age-related hearing loss, and 26 younger adults aged 18-26 who had normal hearing. Recordings were made while they performed two different types of tasks (a problem solving task and reading sentences) with a conversational partner in good and challenging communicative conditions. Word-aligned orthographic transcriptions are available for all recordings. Permission was obtained from participants for these recordings to be used for research purposes and the corpus is available from researchers on request. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2017 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact This corpus is being used by other researchers to investigate speech processing approaches to enhance intelligibility in noise. 
URL https://discover.ukdataservice.ac.uk/catalogue/?sn=852906&type=Data%20catalogue
 
Description Collaboration with Professor Mary Rudner (University of Linkoping, Sweden) 
Organisation Linkoping University
Country Sweden 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Following a visit to the University of Linkoping to present my recent research on speech communication in older adults, we have further discussed the use of the diapix task to investigate speech communication in challenging conditions. I was invited to participate as co-investigator in three grant proposals to funding bodies in Sweden that will make use of our method to investigate speech communication in different populations (aging, immigrants of working age). One grant entitled 'Good auditory ecology for active and healthy aging' was funded for three years by Forte (Swedish Research Council for Health, Working Life and Welfare)
Collaborator Contribution This collaboration will also benefit our work, as the other co-investigator in these proposals, Professor Inga Holube, conducts studies involving Experiential Momentary Assessment, which is a technique that we are also using in our ESRC study. We will benefit from joint discussions on the use of these techniques.
Impact Three grant proposals to Swedish funding bodies on related research, in which i am named as co-investigator. One grant funded (see above)
Start Year 2019
 
Description 'Clang Bang Swoosh Boom' art installation at Bloomsbury Festival (October 2016) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A collaboration between speech scientists Outi Tuomainen and Valerie Hazan and sound artist Thor McIntyre-Burnie (ASWARM) resulted in the creation of a sound installation entitled Clang Bang Swoosh Boom which was exhibited at the Bloomsbury Festival as part of the Beyond Words day of events based at UCL. Our installation aimed to focus attention on how we adapt our speech to communicate effectively in an increasingly noisy world. It also highlighted how noisy environments particularly affect communication in children and older adults. The sound materials used in the installation were extracted from the speech corpora collected within our ESRC-funded projects on speech communication in adverse conditions in children and adults. Each of four audio channels within the installation played the voice of either a child, young or older adult.
Beyond Words was attended by several thousand people and a steady stream of members of the public of all ages came to experience our sound installation. We were on hand to discuss the work and the science behind it with the audience. A leaflet describing 'The Science behind Clang Bang Swoosh Boom', with a short biography of members of our team was also distributed.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://valeriehazan.com/wp/index.php/public-engagement/
 
Description Invited lecture: What can speaker-listener interaction tell us about speech perception in adverse listening conditions? 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact This was an invited presentation at a workshop on psycholinguistic approaches to speech perception in adverse listening conditions. This presentation publicised our ESRC project and also our newly-developed diapixUK task that can be used for recording corpora of spontaneous speech

Other labs have started using our diapixUK materials for their recordings
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2010
 
Description Invited presentation (Conference on Speech in Noise, Groningen, Netherlands) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Our presentation at this conference led to further discussions with a researcher at a major hearing aid company and to new links with researchers at the University of Linköping in Denmark, leading to a joint supervision of a MSc project that will trial the use of our diapix method in a study on automatic speech recognition.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://spin2016.nl/
 
Description Invited presentation (special session on Speech Development across the Lifespan, Acoustical Society of America meeting, Jacksonville, USA) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact This talk was part of a special session on speech development across the lifespan. There was a group discussion on conclusion of the session which also discussed methodological issues relating to lifespan studies.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://acousticalsociety.org/content/fall-2015-meeting
 
Description Invited presentation (workshop on individual differences in language processing across the lifespan, Max Planck Institute, Nijmegen, Netherlands) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact This workshop presentation led to further enquiries about our diapix method for eliciting spontaneous speech interactions in good and adverse conditions.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://www.mpi.nl/events/indivdiffs2015
 
Description Invited presentations (Israeli Speech Hearing and Language conference, Jerusalem, Israel) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact I gave two lecture-length presentations about different aspects of our work on speech communication in adverse conditions to Speech and Language Therapists and Audiologists in Israel. A number expressed an interest in methods to evaluate speech in interaction in children and adults with hearing or language impairment.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.congress.co.il/ishla/
 
Description Invited speaker at 'Aging and Speech Communication Research Conference' in Tampa, USA. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Valerie Hazan gave an invited talk on 'How do Aging and Presbycusis Affect The Ability to Communicate Effectively in Challenging Conditions?' at this prestigious conference. This enabled her to disseminate the results of our recent study to primarily US-based researchers in speech and hearing.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.eng.usf.edu/agingandspeech/
 
Description Invited talk (University of Concepcion, Chile) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact I gave a presentation on 'Speech Communication across the Lifespan' to mainly postgraduate students at the University of Concepcion in Chile. This was broadly attended and one positive outcome of discussions that followed the talk was that one student from this university applied for a postgraduate scholarship within a Marie-Curie network that i am a member of.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Invited talk at University of York, UK 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact I was invited to give a talk entitled ''Coping with challenging speech communication across the lifespan' at the Seminar series of the Department of Psychology in York. I also had a meeting with postgraduate students where we discussed our research and also discussed post-doctoral career opportunities
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Invited talk at the University of Oregon, USA 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact I was invited to give a talk entitled 'Clear speech strategies across the lifespan' in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Oregon in Eugene. I spent a day at the University having individual meetings with postgraduate students and faculty members.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://blogs.uoregon.edu/gloss/2018/10/29/clear-speech-strategies-across-the-lifespan-by-dr-valerie...
 
Description Invited talk at the university of Linkoping, Sweden 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact I was invided to the University of Linkping in Sweden to give a talk entitled 'The effect of aging and hearing status on speech communication in challenging conditions'. The talk was streamed via Twitter so that interested students and others unable to come to Linkoping could follow the talk and ask questions. An important outcome of the visit was to network with researchers based at the University that work on related research. This has led to me being included as collaborator in three grant proposals that were submitted in February 2018 to Swedish research councils.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Invited talk at workshop on 'Speech in Noise workshop' (SPiN2018) In Glasgow, UK 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Outi Tuomainen gave a invited presentation entitled 'Effects of mild age-related hearing loss and background noise on speech communication'. This reached researchers who are primarily working in speech technology applications. This presentation resulted in a request for the use of our speech corpus for research on speech quality & intelligibility models.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://spin2018.eu/
 
Description Invited talk, conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact CHSCOM is a major conference on cognitive hearing science that attracts attendees from industry (hearing aid and cochlear implant companies) as well as academics and postgraduate students.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL http://www.chscom2019.se/
 
Description Keynote presentation at Workshop on challenges in the analysis and processing of spontaneous speech (CAPSS), Budapest, Hungary 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Valerie Hazan gave a keynote presentation entitled 'Spontaneous speech adaptations in challenging communicative conditions across the lifespan'
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://capss2017.nytud.hu/
 
Description Organisation of two-day Workshop on Speech Perception and Production across the Lifespan 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact This was the first workshop organised on the theme of how speech perception and production change across the lifespan. It included invited talks by internationally-renowned academics, oral and poster sessions. There was an attendance of around 60 researchers from many countries. A book of extended abstracts was produced which is open access.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://sppl2017.org/
 
Description Tea and talks afternoon event aimed at study participants and invited representatives from third sector organisations 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact This afternoon event was organised to present the results of our study to study participants and to representatives from Action on Hearing Loss and the University of the Third Age. The session also included talks from researchers working on speech communication in aging within UCL and an opportunity for informal chats with researchers and other participants over tea and cakes. 35 of our participants in the 'older adult' category attended and excellent links were also make with representatives of U3A about involvement of study participants in the planning stage of future studies.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://valeriehazan.com/wp/index.php/public-engagement/