Broadening our Perspective on Speech Recognition in the Aging: Learning from “Peripheral” Disciplines to Inform Solutions

Karen Helfer

DOI: 10.1044/cred-ote-bts-005

I think one continuing question, and one that we’ve had for a long time is, “Why do older people have difficulty understanding speech?”

What exactly changes with age? Is it hearing loss? Is it attenuation from peripheral hearing loss? Is it something else going on in the cochlea? Is it something cognitive?

That’s been a question for a long time, and I think it’s a question that still has not been answered.

I think many of us do clinical type research where we at least hope in the future that we’re informing clinical practice.

So, in my case, I study speech recognition in the aging because we don’t have a good solution for helping people with speech perception problems in difficult listening situations. Hearing aids don’t do it. So, perhaps there is something else we should be doing instead or in addition to hearing aids.

Perhaps there is some cognitive training. Or perhaps there is something else we can do technology-wise.

That’s the type of thing that drives me.

How can researchers start to address these unanswered questions?

One thing that’s really important, I think, in all facets of research, but especially in that facet, is to learn about things that are related to speech and hearing and language, but maybe not directly within the field.

Something that’s benefited me a lot is reaching out to my colleagues in psychology, and learning about cognition, and learning how that applies to the type of research I’m doing. That’s really broadened my research perspective, and I think it’s a really important thing for young researchers to do is to realize you don’t have to stay within your field.

Learning more about peripheral areas — it’s not like we’ve answered all the questions, because we certainly haven’t answered all the questions that are there within the field. But I think a great way to address them is by looking on the periphery of our field, and knowing that we have a lot to learn from people in related fields, linguistics and psychology for example. Incorporating some of their theoretical models and their ideas into our research, I think, will go a long way. Just broadening our perspective, and realizing that perhaps we’re not the center of the universe. Or maybe we are the center of the universe, but there are other places out there too, that could really contribute to what we do.

What’s coming next?

I’m really excited about the studies I have planned. They are really interesting to me, and I hope they are interesting to other people. I’m excited to do the work. Even after 25 years, I’m still excited by my research. I think we’re incredibly lucky to do what we do.

Karen Helfer
University of Massachusetts Amherst

The content of this page is based on selected clips from a video interview conducted at the ASHA National Office.
Copyright © 2015 American Speech-Language-Hearing Association

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