LINGUIST List 28.339

Tue Jan 17 2017

Review: Cog Sci; General Ling; Neuroling; Socioling: Wright (2016)

Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <>

Date: 15-Sep-2016
From: Judith Lejeck <>
Subject: Cognition, Language and Aging
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Heather Harris Wright
TITLE: Cognition, Language and Aging
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2016

REVIEWER: Judith M Lejeck, Northeastern Illinois University

Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


Designed as an advanced textbook, as stated on the back cover, Cognition, Language and Aging has nine chapters, each one about different aspects of the normal aging process and its effects on language and the brain.

The first chapter, “Cognition, language, and aging: An introduction”, written by Amy Henderson and book editor Heather Harris Wright, states that the book’s goal is to present a comprehensive overview of the most recent scholarship from neurophysiology, cognition, psycholinguistics, and sociolinguistics in contributing to a better understanding of normal changes in language during the aging process (p. 1). Chapter 1 also includes an overview of the remaining chapters, and it concludes with a summary of some of the major ideas that recur in several other chapters.

Chapter 2, “The Tip-of-the-Tongue phenomenon: Who, what, and why”, by Lise Abrams and Danielle K. Davis, is a very thorough look at the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon (TOT), the phenomenon of not being able to retrieve a word that one knows is in one’s lexicon. This is a frustrating experience that occurs in people of all ages at times but increases in frequency with normal aging. The authors discuss many studies about the TOT. They begin with those that explore possible causes and how such factors as inhibition, lexical selection, and phonological processing fit into causation theories. Research on two of the major hypotheses that attempt to explain the increase of TOT in the normal aging population, the Inhibition Deficit Hypothesis and the Transmission Deficit Hypothesis, is explained in detail. This chapter also covers research on resolution of TOTs, i.e., how the intended word is eventually retrieved.

Chapter 3 is “Age-related effects on language production: A combined psycho-linguistic and neurolinguistic perspective”, by Andrea Marini and Sara Andreetta. It begins by discussing the language processing system as a whole and goes on to explain the findings of studies in age-related effects on various aspects of language processing, such as lexical processing, grammatical processing, and discourse production. This chapter also covers research on the relevance of neural networks to the language production process, noting in particular the contribution of neuroimaging techniques in the last 20 years. One important conclusion the authors make is that many studies agree that though phonological retrieval slows and grammar complexity declines with age, lexical knowledge does not.

In Chapter 4, “Aging effects on discourse production”, Stephen Kintz, Gerasimos Fergadiotis, and Heather Harris Wright discuss the stages of processing on both the microlinguistic (e.g. phonology, syntax) and macrolinguistic (beyond-sentence) levels and how they interact in the production of discourse. Their focus is on research relative to lexical diversity within the microlinguistic level and coherence within the macrolinguistic level. Their “Future directions” section points out that discourse processes in the aging population is an area in need of further research and that this research should be viewed in terms of discourse models, something which hasn’t happened much yet in recent research (p. 101). Additionally, they point out in the conclusion that a better understanding of discourse changes in normal aging will contribute to more understanding of the contrasts between normal aging changes and those in people with aphasia and dementia.

In Chapter 5, titled “Language comprehension in aging”, Gayle DeDe and Jessica Knilans Flax review the variables involved in sentence comprehension that are relevant to changes in comprehension abilities of normally aging older adults. There is a detailed discussion of variables related to sentence comprehension, namely, word recognition, predictability, word order, and auditory and visual acuity. After their discussion of the many recent studies that have been done on these variables, the authors conclude that many older adults take more time than younger adults to comprehend sentences due to reduced working memory and worsening visual and/or auditory acuity. However, they also conclude that much evidence shows that older adults compensate for these declines by means of a positive strategy of using processing resources differently as well as using their experience-based knowledge of language.

Chapter 6, “The role of cognition on age-related changes in language, memory, and mental models”, is by David E. Copeland, Nicole J. Bies-Hernandez, and Kris Guawan. Its focus is on studies that examine how changes in cognition affect language processing and comprehension, including the maintenance of some cognitive abilities along with the decline of others. The authors conclude, based on the studies they cite, that normal aging adults do experience cognitive declines, such as lessening working memory (which affects results on reasoning tasks) and greater interference from irrelevant information. Prominent among the maintained abilities are the construction and retention of situation and event models. These strengths are pointed out as intrinsically beneficial not only for aging adults in their everyday lives and for theoretical research, but also for the design of learning materials for older adults, materials that can take advantage of abilities such as drawing inferences within a rich context such as a narrative.

Chapter 7, “Reading in normally aging adults”, is by Peter C. Gordon, Matthew W. Lowder, and Renske S. Hoedemaker. The chapter begins with a discussion of the importance of maintaining reading skills for older adults, for both practical tasks and cognitive benefits that might help diminish changes in the brain. It reviews and cites many studies to support its conclusion that normally aging adults typically do not experience declines in most reading skills. In fact, the authors refer to evidence that when declines occur, it is usually because of vision changes, not cognitive declines. Furthermore, aging adults commonly compensate for these declines. In the category of preserved skills, evidence of text memory, semantic knowledge, and sentence processing ability, along with compensation based on lifelong knowledge, vocabulary, and print exposure, have been demonstrated in many recent studies.

Chapter 8 is “Cognitive and linguistic processes among oldest old persons: Heterogeneity, methodological challenges, and relevance of psychosocial resources”, written by Jennifer A. Margrett, Peter Martin, John L. Woodard, and Leonard W. Poon. This chapter covers recent studies comparing a subgroup of the aging population, referred to as the “oldest old” (page 193) and three issues related to cognition and language: heterogeneity within this age group, challenges to researchers studying them, and resources, especially psychosocial ones, that members of this age group may (or may not) have available to them. These three issues have made forming any theories or conclusions about the oldest old difficult, including comparing them to normally aging or non-normally aging older adults under the age of 90, the current cutoff age between old age and very old age. The authors contend in their conclusion that more research of the oldest old is needed, despite the difficulties and complexities involved in the three issues they focus on.

Chapter 9, the final chapter, “Sociolinguistics, language, and aging”, by Boyd Davis and Margaret Maclagan, discusses recent studies related to sociolinguistics and aging. The authors point out that a sociolinguistic approach to aging research was relatively rare in the literature until the mid-1990s. And, even at that time, most studies examined people in the public eye, such as Ronald Reagan and Iris Murdoch, in the context of Alzheimer’s disease (p. 221). Since that time, however, the scope of sociolinguistic approaches has expanded considerably, say the authors, and they provide ample evidence of this in the rest of the chapter. For example, they discuss studies that connect findings from clinical studies with those from sociolinguistics. They also cover two sociolinguistic approaches, variation and discourse, as applied to studies on aging. Studies involving the influence of such factors as identity, gender, and the Internet are also discussed.


Cognition, Language and Aging is purported to be an advanced textbook, and while it could certainly serve that purpose well, it may be of even more importance outside of a course environment. For professionals in any field related to aging and language, especially those involved in research, this volume could serve as an excellent reference. Even for a lay reader interested in the effects of normal aging, it could help by adding to general knowledge, helping dispel myths about aging, and bringing clarity to differences between dementia and normal aging that affect language, keeping in mind that some of the chapter contents may be too technical for the general public.

According to the introductory Chapter 1, the purpose of this book is to “provide an advanced text that considers these unique challenges and assembles, in one source, current information regarding cognitive-linguistic processes in the aging population” (p. 1). This goal is thoroughly accomplished with the contributions of professionals in several relevant fields presenting their findings.

For students or researchers reading the entire book from start to finish, a similarity in each chapter’s organization contributes to the coherence of the book as a whole. Every chapter includes an introductory abstract, like a typical professional journal article, and the body of each chapter begins with an explanation of the relevance and importance of the the chapter topic. When necessary, definitions of relevant terms that may not be familiar to all readers are also provided. Most chapters then go into detail about recent scholarship; they each end with a conclusion section; some chapters also include a discussion of future directions. Also reinforcing the coherence of the volume is the frequent reference to topics in previous chapters, making the book read more like a textbook than a collection of essays. This feature, plus the liberal use of subheadings throughout each chapter, is a plus for someone who wants to read or reread specific subsections rather than an entire chapter.

Another valuable feature is the number of sources cited. For chapters that are on average 20-30 pages long, (with Chapter 2, at 40 pages, the longest) the wealth of references at the end of each chapter is impressive. For example, the first four chapters list 54, 262, 143, and 78 sources, respectively. Anyone looking to read further about almost any aspect of language and aging would have a virtual treasure-trove of sources to choose from. And, for anyone relatively new to the field of language and aging, seeing names of oft-cited professional journals could be very valuable for further, independent research.

There are, however, a few additions I would recommend. One is an expanded index. Though most of the important topics are included, for a book with so much terminology, I expected an index longer than 1-1/2 pages. An author index would have been a plus, too. Next, most edited texts include a section about the contributors, which is not present here. Only the university affiliation is mentioned under each author’s name, after the chapter title. It would have been interesting as well as helpful to know the various fields the different authors work in, as well as their relevant experiences and accomplishments. In addition, although many studies and experiments are referred to in every chapter, not many concrete examples are given. The few times examples and/or data from experiments are included, both theory and interpretation become much clearer. Lastly, at the risk of being labeled a prescriptive grammar geek, I was put off by typos and grammatical errors, though they were not frequent and didn’t inhibit comprehension.

To sum up, Cognition, Language and Aging could be a helpful source for anyone investigating or working with older adults. The drawback, as with any current research on language and aging, is that what is current becomes not current very quickly. The latest studies cited in this volume were dated 2014 and some were from the 1980s. Though this doesn’t necessarily make earlier studies outdated or irrelevant, anyone looking for the most up-to-date information would have to supplement their search with newer publications.


Judith M. Lejeck is a Master's Degree in Linguistics candidate at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, IL. She hopes to continue her academic studies in a doctoral program, where she can pursue her research interests in feminist linguistics, discourse analysis, and identity and power in language within different age groups.

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