Natural, Everyday Language Use Provides a Window Into the Integrity of Older Adults' Executive Functioning

Angelina J Polsinelli, Suzanne A Moseley, Matthew D Grilli, Elizabeth L Glisky, Matthias R Mehl
Journals of Gerontology. Series B, Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences 2020 October 16, 75 (9): e215-e220

OBJECTIVES: Language markers derived from structured clinical interviews and assessments have been found to predict age-related normal and pathological cognitive functioning. An important question, then, is the degree to which the language that people use in their natural daily interactions, rather than their language elicited within and specifically for clinical assessment, carries information about key cognitive functions associated with age-related decline. In an observational study, we investigated how variability in executive functioning (EF) manifests in patterns of daily word use.

METHOD: Cognitively normal older adults (n = 102; mean age 76 years) wore the electronically activated recorder, an ambulatory monitoring device that intermittently recorded short snippets of ambient sounds, for 4 days, yielding an acoustic log of their daily conversations as they naturally unfolded. Verbatim transcripts of their captured utterances were text-analyzed using linguistic inquiring and word count. EF was assessed with a validated test battery measuring WM, shifting, and inhibitory control.

RESULTS: Controlling for age, education, and gender, higher overall EF, and particularly working memory, was associated with analytic (e.g., more articles and prepositions), complex (e.g., more longer words), and specific (e.g., more numbers) language in addition to other language markers (e.g., a relatively less positive emotional tone, more sexual and swear words).

DISCUSSION: This study provides first evidence that the words older adults use in daily life provide a window into their EF.

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