Good Life

Not all aging is decline: How some aspects of language remain stable across the lifespan

While some associate aging with moving more slowly, forgetfulness and other impairments, not all mental aspects show decline. Language is a great example of where there can be stability across the lifespan.

Reading, for example, is a skill that is well maintained as we age and can be a great activity for maintaining a stimulating mental life. This is important because keeping your brain active is a key component in maintaining one’s cognitive abilities. Research has found that people who read more were less affected by declines in working memory. It wasn’t that working memory didn’t decline with age, but a lifetime of reading experience made those individuals less affected by working memory impairments during reading.

Reading has a host of other benefits as well, such as reducing stress. Moreover, reading before going to bed can contribute to a good nighttime routine to help promote sleep (something else that helps maintain mental and physical health).

Other aspects of language can actually improve as we age. Vocabulary continues to grow as we accumulate experiences. Typically, the older (and more educated) a person is, the larger their vocabulary is. Reading is another great way to expand your vocabulary.

While years of reading and acquiring new experiences helps our knowledge grow, aging can cause retrieving this information to become more difficult. One of the most frustrating and embarrassing experiences with language can be difficulty recalling a person’s name or a specific word when you know that you know that name or word. These instances are called tip-of-the-tongue phenomena. While these experiences can be frustrating, it’s important to remember that tip-of-the-tongue experiences happen at every stage of life. They tend to happen more as we get older, but they’re not necessarily a sign of unhealthy aging or dementia. For most people, these issues resolve themselves. So even if it’s too late to be particularly useful, remember that you know the word, it’s just not coming to mind at that moment.

While we don’t know exactly why we have these experiences, there are things that you can do to minimize them. For names, in particular, when you’re meeting someone for the first time, try to make an association with their name by repeating it and linking it to something meaningful. We know that the more thoroughly something is processed, the more likely it is to be remembered and the easier it is to recall. Another strategy if you know you’ll see people that you haven’t seen in a while, is to practice their names in advance. We know that recently encountered names and words are easier to recall, and less likely to be temporarily “forgotten.”

Another common language challenge with conversations can be hearing and understanding the other person. Presbycusis, or age-related hearing loss caused by the natural aging of the hearing system, affects most people. Hearing can be even more difficult in noisy settings, such as restaurants and other social settings. While we can’t prevent all hearing loss, it’s extremely important to address it with hearing aids. We know that declines in auditory input, can lead to declines in the brain regions that process spoken language. Moreover, difficulty hearing may cause individuals to avoid these situations, increase social isolation and lead to further declines.

There are many aspects of language, some that are well retained, like reading and knowledge, and others that show some loss like speaking and hearing. But whatever your language ability, there are things that we each can do to help us age better, like staying mentally engaged and addressing sensory decline.

We know all of these things from research, and research on aging can only be done with the help of older adults. If you’re interested in helping us understand how we age, consider being a Participant Across the Lifespan. To find out more about us, visit our website at healthyaging.psu.edu/pals or get in touch with us directly at 867-3653 or psuresearchpals@gmail .com.

Michele Diaz is the director of human imaging at the Social, Life and Engineering Sciences Imaging Center and an associate professor of psychology, linguistics and neuroscience at Penn State.

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