When Cognitive Decline Comes Up In Conversation

November 16, 2012

by Robin Tricoles 

As we enter old age, our conversational capability declines. Yet, we’ve become experts at discourse. After all, we’ve been talking with people all our lives. What’s more, humans are highly social so we’re motivated to connect with others.

So, how does our expertise and drive to communicate with others fare in the face of cognitive decline?

That’s what cognitive psychologist William Horton wants to know. Horton, an associate professor of cognitive psychology at Northwestern University,studies the tradeoffs between cognitive decline in old age and seniors’ mastery of conversation.

Effective conversation hinges not just on the words or ideas we string together to explain ourselves and the world, it also hinges on our awareness of whom we’re speaking with; that is, our speaking partner’s knowledge of the subject at hand. In fact, it’s that awareness that allows us to make moment-to-moment decisions and adjustments to what we say and how we say it so we can make ourselves better understood.

That sort of flexibility can be difficult for anyone engaged in conversation, but for seniors that difficulty increases. “Older adults are really an interesting population to look at because there’s a lot of evidence of changes in memory processing,” says Horton. “We grow less efficient and effective at accessing information.”

For example, older people have slower speaking rates, include more filled pauses (“ums”), and are considerably less flexible when considering their conversational partner’s background and knowledge. But why is this? What cognitive changes are occurring that explain this change?

One explanation, says Horton, is that our ability to consider the knowledge of others during conversation is mediated by a basic cognitive function known as working memory. Working memory is the ability to control our attention; that is, to remember one thing while we’re thinking about something else. The ability to do this is key to maintaining and manipulating information during cognitive processing, says Horton. And that ability fades as we age.

Sid Horton Quote.jpgIn addition, seniors’ inhibitory control, the ability to inhibit irrelevant information in order to focus on information that is relevant to a conversational partner, also fades. “Inhibitory control allows someone to take into account someone else’s perspective,” says. Horton. “Sometimes you have to inhibit your own knowledge, and realize it’s not going to be important to the other person.”

How well seniors communicate while facing cognitive decline, is not only interesting to Horton, it has practical implications as well. Take for instance, the way in which older patients communicate with their physicians, and vice versa. It’s clear that ineffective communications between doctors and patients can have serious effects on seniors’ health and well-being.

Likewise, computer systems that engage in dialogue with users don’t necessarily take into account how the elderly communicate; yet, the nation’s average age is on the rise. So a better understanding of the cognitive difficulties older adults face when they communicate would allow for better designs to accommodate a growing segment of our population, says Horton. 


William Horton investigates memory and cognitive processes underlying language use. His research involves the study of the social and contextual factors that affect how people use and understand language. More recently, he has begun examining potential age-related changes in language use. Horton is an associate professor of psychology at Northwestern University and a member of the governing board of the Society for Text and Discourse, one of FABBS’ 22 member societies.

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