Language and Cognitive Aging
- Lori E. JamesLori E. JamesDepartment of Psychology, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs
- and Sara Anne GoringSara Anne GoringDepartment of Psychology, School of Behavioral and Organizational Sciences, Claremont Graduate University
The questions of whether and why language processes change in healthy aging require complicated answers. Although comprehension appears to be more stable across adulthood than does production, there is evidence for age-related changes and also for constancy within both input and output components of language. Further, these changes can be considered at various levels of the language hierarchy, such as sensory input, words, sentences, and discourse. As concluded in several other comprehensive reviews, older adults’ language production ability declines much more noticeably than does their comprehension, presumably because comprehension is able to benefit from contextual processing in a way that production cannot. Specifically, lexical and orthographic retrieval become more difficult during normal aging, and these changes appear to represent the most noticeable age-related declines in language production. Some theories of age-related decline focus on global deterioration of cognitive function, whereas other theories predict changes in specific processes related to language function. Both types of theories have received empirical support as applied to language performance, although additional theoretical development is still needed to capture the patterns of effects. Further, in order to truly understand how cognitive aging impacts the ability to understand and produce language, it is necessary to examine how age-related shifts in goals, expertise, and compensatory strategies influence language processes. There are important implications of research on language and cognitive aging, in that language can play a role in physical health and psychological well-being. In summary, our review of the existing literature on language and cognitive aging supports previous claims that language ability is asymmetrically impacted by age, with smaller overall effects of aging on comprehension than production processes.