Book review – Changing minds: how aging affects language & how language affects aging

Without language, how could we make friends, be entertained, or fall in love? Why should any of this change with age?

Roger Kreuz and Richard Roberts

Personal observation and public opinion condition us into accepting that aging negatively affects language. But what is the science to back it up? Veteran authors Roger Kreuz and Richard Roberts surveyed the current landscape of aging and language in their MIT Press-published book, “Changing Minds: How Aging Affects Language and How Language Affects Aging”.

As the subtitle suggests, the book also examines the reverse relationship–how language affects aging–in the sense of ‘harnessing our linguistic abilities to enhance the quality of our lives’, and ‘to achieve a heightened self-awareness.’ Conventional wisdom encourages older adults to keep listening, speaking, reading and writing. Is there any scientific evidence that those 4 pillars of language can slow down age-related cognitive decline? Unlike aging which is an involuntary process, we can choose to read more, write more and converse more, if the rewards are convincing enough.

Analysis & Evaluation

Kreuz and Roberts coauthored “Changing Minds” as well as “How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language”. Given that they came from a cognitive science background, it is not surprising that the book focuses primarily on research from that field. In addition to the cognitive perspective, the authors also bring to bear findings from the physiological and social perspectives of aging and language.

Despite the vast wealth of knowledge to draw from, the book is relatively and remarkably short. It has a total of 268 pages, but 87 of those pages, more than one-third of the entire book, comprise the back matter, including the 2 bibliographic sections, Notes and References.

Other books, typically advanced research monographs such as “Cognition, Language and Aging” by H. Wright, may devote entire chapters to specific topics which “Changing Minds” only touches on. For instance, the Tip-Of-the-Tongue phenomenon (TOT). Older adults tend to have more frequent TOT moments, trying to retrieve a known word from memory, such as a proper name, but fail, although the word is on the tip of their tongue.

The book being brief does have its advantages: the uninitiated are spared the details such as the 2 current theories for explaining TOT. The inhibition deficit hypothesis places the blame on the elderly’s declining cognitive control to suppress competing word alternatives. The transmission deficit hypothesis postulates that semantic connections in an aging memory are generally weakened and therefore require more activation to zero in on the target word. Both are interesting theories, to some people, but do not add readability to the text.

Brevity and readability in the principal text have come at the cost of imprecision in the discussion of some research findings. On the effectiveness of stuttering therapies, the book states (emphasis mine):

‘But therapy doesn’t help everyone. Many adults who stutter have mixed feelings about the role of speech therapy. Some respondents in a survey said that they had negative experiences with therapy, but they also reported that it had been helpful. Over and above such ambivalence, some also felt that to change the way they talk would be to reject the person they had become.’

Changing Minds, chapter 3, page 67

Detail-oriented readers may cringe at the sight of vague words such as ‘many’ and ‘some’. However, those who want to drill down into more details will find the Notes and References sections useful. For example, the topic of reminiscing in Chapter 6 piques my interest. The authors explained that not all kinds of reminiscence, i.e., connecting to one’s past through talking or writing about it, are beneficial. A taxonomy of reminiscence from a research study was then presented. Wanting to know more, I was able to identify, using the Notes section, the original research papers on the taxonomy, which I then downloaded for free from ResearchGate.

Conclusion

“Changing Minds” is a highly readable book written for the general public, not so much to the research community. I’d recommend this book to anyone looking for a broad overview of how aging and language relate to each other, and not caring for much scientific detail.

Disclaimer: Thanks to the MIT Press for providing me a complimentary copy of “Changing Minds: How Aging Affects Language and How Language Affects Aging” for this book review.