Language is a complex lifelong faculty supported by the general cognitive system as well as the dynamic interactions between comprehension and production processes within the language system. Studies reported that while normal aging impairs important aspects of language production, most core processes of comprehension are robust. However, accumulating evidence suggests a decline in comprehension when comparing older adults with young ones. Thus it is plausible to assume that there might be a general degradation in older adults’ language capacity. The information-universal theories assume that the aging of language is contributed by the declines in general cognitive abilities including processing speed, working memory and inhibitory function, while the information-specific theories highlight the unique changes of linguistic representations and their connections in the brain, which may result in decreased interplay between comprehension and production.
The current study investigated the relationships among language comprehension capacity, production capacity, and general cognitive abilities, and explored the factors that influence the aging of language processing. We employed two groups of participants (103 young adults and 114 older adults), and measured their general cognitive abilities and language capacities with different tasks. General cognitive abilities were assessed in three dimensions: processing speed by color judgment and numerical judgment tasks, working memory by digit span forward and backward tasks, and inhibitory function by STROOP color-word judgment task. Language comprehension and production capacities were measured at word, sentence and discourse processing levels, respectively.
We first compared the performance between the two age groups, and then conducted hierarchical regression analyses to examine the contributions of information-universal and information-specific factors to language performance. Results showed lower scores in older adults than their young counterparts on all measures. The first hierarchical regression analyses revealed that there were differences between the older and the young groups, which presented not only in the contributions of general cognitive abilities to language capacities but also in the contributions of comprehension and production capacities to each other. For word processing, young adults’ performance was predicted by both general cognitive abilities and the other language capacities, while the former did not predict older adults’ performance; for sentence processing, young adults’ performance was predicted by general cognitive abilities (only in comprehension) and the other language capacities, while neither of them explained older adults’ performance; for discourse processing, young adults’ comprehension scores were predicted by their production capacity, while older adults’ scores of comprehension and production were predicted by their general cognitive abilities and comprehension capacity respectively. Results of the second hierarchical regression analyses indicated that both general cognitive abilities and the other language capacities contributed to the group differences in language performance, and the contributions of the former were larger than those of the latter.
In sum, older adults show an overall age-related decline in general cognitive abilities, language comprehension and production capacities. We suggest that the aging of language processing is subject to both the information- universal factor as well as the information-specific factor, with the former reflected as the general degradation in cognitive abilities and the latter related to specific changes in the architecture of language system.
Ackerman P. L. (2008). Knowledge and cognitive aging. In F. I. M. Craik & T. A. Salthouse (Eds.), The handbook of aging and cognition (3rd ed., pp. 445-489). New York, NY: Psychology Press.
Adams A. M., & Gathercole S. E . (2000). Limitations in working memory: Implications for language development. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 35(1), 95-116.
Arbuckle T. Y., & Gold D. P . (1993). Aging, inhibition, and verbosity. Journal of Gerontology, 48(5), 225-232.
Baddeley A . (1992). Working memory. Science, 255(5044), 556-559.
Baddeley A . (2003). Working memory: looking back and looking forward. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 4(10), 829-839.
Bock K., & Miller C. A . (1991). Broken agreement. Cognitive Psychology, 23(1), 45-93.
Bortfeld H., Leon S. D., Bloom J. E., Schober M. F., & Brennan S. E . (2001). Disfluency rates in conversation: Effects of age, relationship, topic, role, and gender. Language and Speech, 44(2), 123-147.
Boudiaf N., Laboissière R., Cousin é., Fournet N., Krainik A., & Baciu M . (2018). Behavioral evidence for a differential modulation of semantic processing and lexical production by aging: A full linear mixed-effects modeling approach. Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition, 25(1), 1-22.
Britt A. E., Ferrara C., & Mirman D . (2016). Distinct effects of lexical and semantic competition during picture naming in younger adults, older adults, and people with aphasia. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 813.
Burke D. M., & College P . (1997). Language, aging, and inhibitory deficits: Evaluation of a theory. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 52(6), 254-264.
Burke D. M., MacKay D. G., Worthley J. S., & Wade E . (1991). On the tip of the tongue: What causes word finding failures in young and older adults? Journal of Memory and Language, 30(5), 542-579.
Burke D. M., & Shafto M. A . (2004). Aging and language production. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13(1), 21-24.
Cai Q., & Brysbaert M . (2010). SUBTLEX-CH: Chinese word and character frequencies based on film subtitles. PloS One, 5(6), e10729.
Caplan D., & Waters G. S . (1999). Verbal working memory and sentence comprehension. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 22(1), 77-94.
Caplan D., & Waters G . (2005). The relationship between age, processing speed, working memory capacity, and language comprehension. Memory, 13(3-4), 403-413.
Clark L. J., Gatz M., Zheng L., Chen Y. L., McCleary C., & Mack W. J . (2009). Longitudinal verbal fluency in normal aging, preclinical, and prevalent Alzheimer’s disease. American Journal of Alzheimer's Disease & Other Dementias, 24(6), 461-468.
Daneman M., & Merikle P. M . (1996). Working memory and language comprehension: A meta-analysis. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 3(4), 422-433.
de Beni R., Borella E., & Carretti B . (2007). Reading comprehension in aging: The role of working memory and metacomprehension. Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition, 14(2), 189-212.
DeDe G., Caplan D., Kemtes K., & Waters G . (2004). The relationship between age, verbal working memory, and language comprehension. Psychology and Aging, 19(4), 601-616.
DeDe G., & Flax J. K . (2016). Language comprehension in aging. Language, Cognition and Aging, 107-133.
Ellis N. C . (1996). Sequencing in SLA: Phonological memory, chunking, and points of order. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 18(1), 91-126.
Federmeier K. D., McLennan D. B., de Ochoa E., & Kutas M . (2002). The impact of semantic memory organization and sentence context information on spoken language processing by younger and older adults: An ERP study. Psychophysiology, 39(2), 133-146.
Gaskell G. M. . (2007). Oxford handbook of psycholinguistics. Oxford University Press.
Gathercole S. E., & Baddeley A. D . (2014). Working memory and language. Psychology Press.
Glosser G., & Deser T . (1992). A comparison of changes in macrolinguistic and microlinguistic aspects of discourse production in normal aging. Journal of Gerontology, 47(4), 266-272.
Golden C. J., & Freshwater S. M . (1978). STROOP color and word test. Chicago: Stoelting.
Harley T . (2008). The psychology of language: From data to theory, 3rd Edn., Psychology Press.
Hasher L., & Zacks R. T . (1988). Working memory, comprehension, and aging: A review and a new view. The Psychology of Learning and Motivation, 22, 193-225.
Howard D. V . (1980). Category norms: A comparison of the Battig and Montague (1969) norms with the responses of adults between the ages of 20 and 80. Journal of Gerontology, 35(2), 225-231.
Huijbers W., Papp K. V., LaPoint M., Wigman S. E., Dagley A., Hedden T., .. Sperling R. A . (2016). Age-related increases in tip-of-the-tongue are distinct from decreases in remembering names: A functional MRI study. Cerebral Cortex, 27(9), 4339-4349.
Ito T., Tiede M., & Ostry D. J . (2009). Somatosensory function in speech perception. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(4), 1245-1248.
James L. E., & Burke D. M . (2000). Phonological priming effects on word retrieval and tip-of-the-tongue experiences in young and older adults. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 26(6), 1378-1391.
Jones G. V., & Langford S . (1987). Phonological blocking in the tip of the tongue state. Cognition, 26(2), 115-122.
Just M. A., & Carpenter P. A . (2013). Cognitive processes in comprehension. Psychology Press.
Kemper S . (1992 Language and aging. In F. I. M. Craik & T. A. Salthouse (Eds.), The handbook of aging and cognition (pp. 213-270). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Kemper S . (1992b). Adults' sentence fragments: Who, what, when, where, and why. Communication Research, 19(4), 444-458.
Kemper S., Greiner L. H., Marquis J. G., Prenovost K., & Mitzner T. L . (2001). Language decline across the life span: Findings from the nun study. Psychology and Aging, 16(2), 227-239.
Kemper S., Herman R. E., & Lian C . (2003). Age differences in sentence production. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 58(5), P260-P268.
Kemper S., Herman R. E., & Liu C. J . (2004). Sentence production by younger and older adults in controlled contexts. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 59(5), 220-224.
Kliegl R., Grabner E., Rolfs M., & Engbert R . (2004). Length, frequency, and predictability effects of words on eye movements in reading. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 16(1-2), 262-284.
Levelt W. J. M . (1989). Speaking: From intention to articulation-" A bradford book" MIT Press From intention to articulation.-" A bradford book.". MIT Press.
Li X. Q., & Yang Y. F . (2005). The influence of correspondence between accent and information structure on discourse comprehension. Acta Psychologica Sinica, 37(1), 34-40.
Lindenberger U., & Baltes P. B . (1997). Intellectual functioning in old and very old age: Cross-sectional results from the Berlin aging study. Psychology and Aging, 12(3), 410-432.
Liu Y. Y., Hao M. L., Li P., & Shu H . (2011). Timed picture naming norms for Mandarin Chinese. Plos One, 6(1), e16505.
MacKay D. G., & Abrams L . (1998). Age-linked declines in retrieving orthographic knowledge: Empirical, practical, and theoretical implications. Psychology and Aging, 13(4), 647-662.
MacKay D. G., Abrams L., & Pedroza M. J . (1999). Aging on the input versus output side: Theoretical implications of age-linked asymmetries between detecting versus retrieving orthographic information. Psychology and Aging, 14(1), 3-17.
Madden D. J . (1988). Adult age differences in the effects of sentence context and stimulus degradation during visual word recognition. Psychology and Aging, 3(2), 167-172.
Madden D. L., Sale M. V., & Robinson G. A . (2018). Improved conceptual generation and selection with transcranial direct current stimulation in older adults. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 41(1), 43-57.
Margrett J. A., Martin P., Woodard J. L., & Poon L. W . (2016). Cognitive and linguistic processes among oldest old persons. Cognition, Language and Aging, 193-220.
Martin R. C., Shelton J. R., & Yaffee L. S . (1994). Language processing and working memory: Neuropsychological evidence for separate phonological and semantic capacities. Journal of Memory and Language, 33(1), 83-111.
Mayer M . (1969). Frog, where are you? New York: Dial Press.
Miles S., & Chapman R. S . (2002). Narrative content as described by individuals with Down syndrome and typically developing children. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 45(1), 175-189.
Montgomery J. W . (1995). Sentence comprehension in children with specific language impairment: The role of phonological working memory. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 38(1), 187-199.
Morrison C. M., Hirsh K. W., Chappell T., & Ellis A. W . (2002). Age and age of acquisition: An evaluation of the cumulative frequency hypothesis. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 14(4), 435-459.
Nasreddine Z. S., Phillips N. A., Bédirian V., Charbonneau S., Whitehead V., Collin I., .. Chertkow H . (2005). The Montreal Cognitive Assessment, MoCA: A brief screening tool for mild cognitive impairment. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 53(4), 695-699.
Nation K., Adams J. W., Bowyer-Crane C. A., & Snowling M. J . (1999). Working memory deficits in poor comprehenders reflect underlying language impairments. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 73(2), 139-158.
Park D. C., Lautenschlager G., Hedden T., Davidson N. S., Smith A. D., & Smith P. K . (2002). Models of visuospatial and verbal memory across the adult life span. Psychology and Aging, 17(2), 299-320.
Payne B . (2014). The effects of verbal working memory training on language comprehension in older adulthood (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Pickering M. J., & Garrod S . (2007). Do people use language production to make predictions during comprehension? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11(3), 105-110.
Pickering M. J., & Garrod S . (2013). An integrated theory of language production and comprehension. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 36(4), 329-347.
Poon L. W., & Fozard J. L . (1978). Speed of retrieval from long-term memory in relation to age, familiarity, and datedness of information. Journal of Gerontology, 33(5), 711-717.
Psychology Software Tools, Inc. [E-Prime 3.0]. (2016). Retrieved from https://www.pstnet.com
Rastle K. G., & Burke D. M . (1996). Priming the tip of the tongue: Effects of prior processing on word retrieval in young and older adults. Journal of Memory and Language, 35(4), 586-605.
Rayner K., Reichle E. D., Stroud M. J., Williams C. C., & Pollatsek A . (2006). The effect of word frequency, word predictability, and font difficulty on the eye movements of young and older readers. Psychology and Aging, 21(3), 448-465.
Reuterlorenz P. A., & Sylvester C. Y. C .(2005). The Cognitive Neuroscience of Working Memory and Aging (pp. 186-217). Oxford University Press.
Salthouse T. A . (1993). Speed and knowledge as determinants of adult age differences in verbal tasks. Journal of Gerontology, 48(1), 29-36.
Salthouse T. A . (1994). The aging of working memory. Neuropsychology, 8(4), 535-543.
Salthouse T. A . (1996). The processing-speed theory of adult age differences in cognition. Psychological Review, 103(3), 403-428.
Saur D., Kreher B. W., Schnell S., Kümmerer D., Kellmeyer P., Vry M. S., .. Weiller C . (2008). Ventral and dorsal pathways for language. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(46), 18035-18040.
Schaie K. W . (1994). The course of adult intellectual development. American psychologist, 49(4), 304-313.
Schaie K. W. (1996). Intellectual development in adulthood: The Seattle longitudinal study. Cambridge University Press.
Schriefers H., Meyer A. S., & Levelt W. J. M . (1990). Exploring the time course of lexical access in language production: Picture-word interference studies. Journal of Memory and Language, 29(1), 86-102.
Shafto M. A., Burke D. M., Stamatakis E. A., Tam P. P., & Tyler L. K . (2007). On the tip-of-the-tongue: Neural correlates of increased word-finding failures in normal aging.[J] ournal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 19(12), 2060-2070.
Shafto M. A., & Tyler L. K . (2014). Language in the aging brain: The network dynamics of cognitive decline and preservation. Science, 346(6209), 583-587.
Shalom D. B., & Poeppel D . (2008). Functional anatomic models of language: Assembling the pieces. The Neuroscientist, 14(1), 119-127.
Shtyrov Y . (2010). Automaticity and attentional control in spoken language processing: Neurophysiological evidence. The Mental Lexicon, 5(2), 255-276.
Sommers M. S., & Danielson S. M . (1999). Inhibitory processes and spoken word recognition in young and older adults: the interaction of lexical competition and semantic context. Psychology and Aging, 14(3), 458-472.
Stine-Morrow E. A. L., Ryan S., Sandra Leonard J . (2000). Age differences in on-line syntactic processing. Experimental Aging Research, 26(4), 315-322.
Strain E., Patterson K., & Seidenberg M. S . (1995). Semantic effects in single-word naming. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 21(5), 1140-1154.
Swanson H. L . (1999). What develops in working memory? A life span perspective. Developmental Psychology, 35(4), 986-1000.
Taler V., Aaron G. P., Steinmetz L. G., & Pisoni D. B . (2010). Lexical neighborhood density effects on spoken word recognition and production in healthy aging. Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 65(5), 551-560.
Taylor J. K., & Burke D. M . (2002). Asymmetric aging effects on semantic and phonological processes: Naming in the picture-word interference task. Psychology and Aging, 17(4), 662-676.
Thornton R., & Light L. L . (2006). Twelve - Language comprehension and production in normal aging. In Handbook of the psychology of aging (pp. 261-287). Academic Press.
Tyler L. K., Cobb H., & Graham N . (1992). Spoken language comprehension: An experimental approach to disordered and normal processing The MIT Press An experimental approach to disordered and normal processing. The MIT Press.
United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. (2019). World Population Prospects 2019: Highlights.
Valente A., & Laganaro M . (2015). Ageing effects on word production processes: An ERP topographic analysis. Language, Cognition and Neuroscience, 30(10), 1259-1272.
Verhaeghen P . (2003). Aging and vocabulary score: A meta- analysis. Psychology and Aging, 18(2), 332-339.
Waters G. S., & Caplan D . (1996). The capacity theory of sentence comprehension: critique of Just and Carpenter (1992). Psychological Review, 103(4), 761-772.
Waters G. S., & Caplan D . (2001). Age, working memory, and on-line syntactic processing in sentence comprehension. Psychology and Aging, 16(1), 128-144.
Wechsler D . (1997). WAIS-3: Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale: Administration and Scoring Manual. Psychological Corporation.
White K. K., & Abrams L . (2002). Does priming specific syllables during tip-of-the-tongue states facilitate word retrieval in older adults? Psychology and Aging, 17(2), 226-235.
Yang Q., & Zhang Q. F . (2015). Aging of word frequency, syllable frequency and phonological facilitation effects in Chinese speech production. Journal of Psychological Science, 38(6), 1303-1310.