What you say can change older adult brain functioning

Photo via firstlighthomecare

This week’s trivia question asked whether the way people talk to older adults can change brain functioning of an older adult. The answer is yes! A myth associated with aging is that there is, in general, rapid incline in function from childhood to adulthood to middle-age but then a rapid decline after middle age into older adulthood. Social scientists have simplistically described this as an “upside down ‘U’ shape for development.” This myth extends to communication as well.

There are typical (normative) changes that occur in an aging person’s brain functioning that may slow an older person’s response rate or processing speed during communication, but verbal ability has been found to increase and level off until very late in life (Hedden & Gabrieli, 2004). Researchers in aging and communication have determined that “age” alone cannot determine changes in communication functioning, but how people communicate across the lifespan does change during aging.

For those of us who have ever sat with a grandparent, great-grandparent, or with an older adult and listened to a story, we know that there are often side stories that do not necessarily relate directly to the initial story. There might be details that lead to other stories. Researchers have found that older adults have so much “mental clutter” that they can have difficulty staying on a singular topic and can be distracted by the other memories. Older adults may have secondary issues, such as illness or medications, that can also negatively affect their communication capabilities. These factors have led to much of the communication myths related to older adulthood. These myths, then, have also led to changes in how younger adults may speak to older adults.

The communication predicament model of aging posits that younger adults see older adults as having mental incapacity that leads younger adults to speak in simplified terms (Ryan, Hummert, & Boich,1995). A result of this predicament model is something called “elderspeak.” Elderspeak is a type of communication style directed at older adults that is similar to how we speak to children. While many terms used are considered terms of endearment (e.g., cute, sweetie, honey), when used as a way to “talk-down” to an older adult or to minimize broader communication by using such terms has been shown to change older adult brain functioning negatively. The reason behind this is that older adult brains still require opportunities for complex thought and reasoning. Communication allows the brain muscle to flex, keeping it strong as time goes on.

So while discussions with some older adults may seem to go down multiple paths or lose direction altogether, continuing to discuss these multiple paths helps the older adult’s brain functioning. Disengaging from conversation or using elderspeak can negatively impact the older person’s brain functioning.

Thank you to those participating in this week’s #AgeTrivia. We will have a new question next week.


Hedden, T., & Gabrieli, J.D.E. (2004). Insights into the ageing mind: A view from cognitive neuroscience. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 5, 87-96.

Ryan, E.B., Hummert, M.L., & Boich, L.H. (1995). Communication predicaments of aging: Patronizing behavior toward older adults. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 14, 144-166.

One thought on “What you say can change older adult brain functioning

  1. This is a fascinating observation about how we communicate with our aging families and friends, and how the language we use, based on our cultural assumptions, has a great impact on their mental health and quality of life.

    I would add that undiagnosed ADHD and Learning Disabilities (e.g. dyslexia) are quite common among aging adults who grew up before reliable testing was developed (for many of us, even these terms themselves were completely unknown.) We managed to develop coping mechanisms to deal with the symptoms of ADHD and LDs through our school and work years, only to find that retirement or an illness throws off a delicate balance and the effects of ADHD/LDs seem to get worse.

    In my case, I was only diagnosed at 62 after a severe bout with Crohn’s put me on disability from my job as a system analyst. Even as my GI system healed, my focus, concentration, and stamina just got worse, and I decided to get tested to see if I had beginning signs of Alzheimer’s (which my mother died from about that same time) or at least get a baseline to compare to later. No obvious signs of Alzheimer’s were found, but I was told I have ADHD and learning disabilities.

    With this knowledge and assessment I was able to start medication and therapy, which has helped me begin to hang on to an idea for an extra second or two (enough time to get into the next room and remember what I came for!) I think it’s quite possible this once these conditions are more widely recognized in older adults, treatments and therapy can make real improvements possible for many of them and their families.

    Thanks for the great article!


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