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Scientific Reports





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Fluctuating background sounds facilitate speech intelligibility by providing speech ‘glimpses’ (masking release). Older adults benefit less from glimpses, but masking release is typically investigated using isolated sentences. Recent work indicates that using engaging, continuous speech materials (e.g., spoken stories) may qualitatively alter speech-in-noise listening. Moreover, neural sensitivity to different amplitude envelope profiles (ramped, damped) changes with age, but whether this affects speech listening is unknown. In three online experiments, we investigate how masking release in younger and older adults differs for masked sentences and stories, and how speech intelligibility varies with masker amplitude profile. Intelligibility was generally greater for damped than ramped maskers. Masking release was reduced in older relative to younger adults for disconnected sentences, and stories with a randomized sentence order. Critically, when listening to stories with an engaging and coherent narrative, older adults demonstrated equal or greater masking release compared to younger adults. Older adults thus appear to benefit from ‘glimpses’ as much as, or more than, younger adults when the speech they are listening to follows a coherent topical thread. Our results highlight the importance of cognitive and motivational factors for speech understanding, and suggest that previous work may have underestimated speech-listening abilities in older adults.