In short, Cohen and Gordon-Salant found that visual distractors made it harder to focus on and understand the target message. The younger subjects, who averaged 22 years old, had little difficulty ignoring the text and second face on the screen while listening, while it was a little harder for older adults, who averaged 69 years old. Both groups struggled with the video, but the effect was much more pronounced on the older group.
There’s much more to learn about how aging and distracting visuals affect speech perception, including the timing of what’s likely a gradual decline, the researchers say. But this early research suggests that simple strategies to avoid loud visuals in noisy environments might help older people with hearing difficulties, Cohen says. “If you’re at a busy restaurant, it might be easier understanding the people you’re eating with if you’re facing the outskirts rather than where all the action is going on.”