We know there are many things that get more difficult as we age. It gets harder to see small print and harder to hear in a noisy environment. Knees and shoulders get injured more easily. Memory isn’t what it used to be.
But while there’s an obvious point where a career in football, gymnastics, or heavy machinery operating must come to an end, careers in words, whether it be writing, teaching, or practicing law, can go on over an entire lifetime.
Language seems to escape the downslides of aging, but is it immune? Not completely, but there is good news in the story of aging and language too.
In their book Changing Minds: How Aging Affects Language and How Language Affects Aging, Roger Kreuz and Richard Roberts show that language “can display surprising resilience in the face of cognitive disruption.” And while “the complete story of language change in adulthood is one of decline,” it is also one of “adaptation, resilience, and even enhancement.”
They take a look at what hundreds of studies have to say about language across age groups. The news isn’t great. As we get older our performance declines in tasks of working memory; our ability to filter distractions gets worse; we more often have trouble finding words; we use more fillers like “uh” and “that sort of thing”; we are slower to judge ambiguity and have more trouble understanding foreign accents.
In addition, there are problems with hearing, especially in the higher frequency range, which makes it harder to distinguish consonant sounds from each other.
Changes in hearing also make it difficult to filter out background noise and focus on a conversation. It may be not only that some sounds are harder to hear, but that loud sounds get perceptually louder.
Some language comprehension problems may be traceable to problems with vision. We use more visual information than we realize when we listen to someone, reading facial expressions, lip movements, and gestures to supplement what doesn’t come through clearly in sound. If vision is affected by minor, normal aging issues, those supplementary cues will be less able to help.
The good news
So with all of this, where exactly is the good news? Certain aspects of language that have been studied are actually quite robust in older people. For example, “the ability to use prosodic cues like stress and timing is well preserved.”
Also, “spelling ability seems to be well preserved throughout adulthood.” The ability to produce and understand complex grammar is stable into the mid-70s and any declines after that “may not be particularly noticeable outside the laboratory and probably do not interfere with everyday communication.”
Compared to younger adults, older adults have larger vocabularies. They “know more words, know what they mean, and know that they know them.” It might seem obvious that the longer you’ve been around, the more you’ve learned, but it’s encouraging that the ability to do that learning stays strong. Vocabulary continues to grow “decades after performance peaks for cognitive processes like short-term and working memory.”
In fact, having a large vocabulary can help compensate for some of the natural linguistic decline that happens with age. Everyone forgets a word sometimes, and while older adults may forget words more often, they may also be able to recover more quickly because they have more to choose from.
“Off Topic Verbosity”
One issue that studies have shown gets worse with age may challenge the evaluation of what “worse” really means when it comes to language.
“Off Topic Verbosity” (OTV) is how researchers describe the practice of veering off topic while speaking, adding irrelevant or extraneous details to a narration in progress. OTV increases with age, but not for every type of conversation.
OTV does not affect tasks of communicating factual content like describing a picture. It is when subjects tell more personal, biographical information that OTV becomes a problem.
Or maybe, as Kreuz and Roberts suggest, it’s not a problem at all. Our communicative goals change as we age. We have more to reflect on, and more to impart. If we grow to value the goal of sharing experience over brevity and economy, the problem may not lie with the speaker, but the listener.
It’s not going off topic if the topic has changed.