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Oral and Written Language Abilities in Typical Aging Individuals: A Work in Progress

Oral and Written Language Abilities in Typical Aging Individuals: A Work in Progress
Sandra L. Schneider, PhD, CCC-SLP
September 20, 2004

Contact Information:
Sandra L. Schneider, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, BC-NCD
Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences
The Ohio State University
110 Pressey Hall
1070 Carmack Road
Columbus, OH 43210
Phone: (614) 292-5664
Fax: (614) 292-7504
Email: schneider.291@osu.edu


Neurologic, motor, cognitive, and social changes in elderly adults can impact language and communication processes. Previous studies have investigated various aspects (i.e., syntax, semantics, pragmatics, vocabulary) of language in typically aging individuals and have found equivocal results.

To assess the effects of disease-related changes (i.e., dementia) on language, it is important to understand how language changes in the typical aging population.

This study evaluated the oral and written language production of individuals 45 to 85 years of age. In addition to a battery of standardized language and cognitive assessments, oral and written language production abilities were examined and compared utilizing similar story re-telling tasks.

Results demonstrated oral language production to be superior to written language production on specific linguistic features. Critical and abstract thinking skills declined as age increased, and the total number of words produced on both oral and written language tasks decreased with increasing age.


Understanding language changes in typical aging individuals is a prerequisite to understanding language changes in individuals with dementia. It would be useful to know whether a decline in specific language skills is the result of the normal aging process, or perhaps, secondary to a disease process. In addition, it would be useful to know whether changes seen in individuals with dementia indicate a rapid progression of the normal aging process, or if they represent deviant and varied patterns.

There has been much research in the area of microlinguistic language features (i.e., lexical, morphological, syntax) in typical aging individuals with variable results reported. Of all the areas in oral language production and aging, vocabulary has been the most extensively examined. In general, word knowledge has not been found to decline with increasing age (Salthouse, 1988; Bayles, Tomoeda & Boone, 1985), while lexical access, confrontational naming, and word fluency tasks have been found to decline as age increases from middle-age to young-old to old-old (Bayles & Kaszniak, 1987; Bowles & Poon, 1985; LeBarge, Edwards & Knesevich, 1986).

Research findings related to syntax in typical aging are equivocal. Some researchers reported no changes in syntactic complexity (Ulatowska & Chapman, 1991; Shewan & Henderson, 1988; Walker et al., 1988; Labov & Augur, 1993) while others reported use of complex grammatical structures is reduced in older adults (Bayles & Kaszniak, 1987; Kemper, 1986, l987). Cooper (1990) found that older individuals produced more elaborations (i.e., complex, embedded sentences, more noun modification, more words in general, and higher noun/verb ratios) with increased use of prepositional phrases.

Investigations of macrolinguistic language features (i.e., pragmatics and discourse skills, lexical and referential cohesion, the quantity, quality and efficiency of information) in the typical aging population have also produced equivocal findings. Chafe (1982) and Schow, Christensen, Hutchinson, & Nerbonne (1978) found an increase in the number of uncertain behaviors and verbal fragmentations in the discourse of older individuals.

Cooper (1990) did not find verbal fragmentations or uncertain behaviors but instead found older speakers produced slightly longer pauses when describing a picture. Most studies of referential cohesion noted a decrease in referential skills in older adults (Cannito, Hayashi, & Ulatowska, 1988; Cooper, 1990; Ulatowska & Chapman, 1991).

Sandra L. Schneider, PhD, CCC-SLP

Sandra L. Schneider, Ph.D. CCC-SLP, BC-NCD is currently an assistant professor at the Ohio State University in Columbus, OH. She does research in the area of acquired adult neurogenic communication disorders including: aphasia, motor speech disorders, dementia, normal aging, and other neurodegenerative disease processes. This research has led to many national and international publications and presentations.


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