Language and Aging
Presenter: Susan Kemper, Ph.D.
Language Across the Life Span
Susan Kemper is the Roberts Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Gerontology at the University of Kansas. She is a participating faculty member in the Gerontology Doctoral Program as well as in the Child Language and Cognitive Psychology doctoral programs. Kemper is the director of the interdisciplinary Research Training Program in Communication and Aging. Her "The Language Across the Lifespan Project" addresses how aging affects the processing of spoken and written language and includes comparative studies of healthy older adults and adults with Alzheimer's disease. Her research ranges from studies of how older adults' memory affects their speech to studies of how to enhance older adults' comprehension through "elderspeak," a set of special speech modifications designed for older adults. Recently, she has established an eye tracking laboratory for age-comparative studies of reading and visual information processing. Along with other researchers, she examined early language abilities as a predictor of late-life cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease as part of the Nun Study. Her research has been supported by a series of grants from the National Institute on Aging. Kemper earned her doctorate at Cornell University in 1978 and her bachelor's degree from Macalester College in 1974. She has received a 5-year research career development award from the National Institute on Aging and the Balfour Jeffery Research Achievement Award at the University of Kansas.
It has been traditionally assumed that verbal abilities are crystallized in adulthood and remain relatively unchanged after puberty except for acquired pathologies due to neurological trauma or disease. I will summarize recent research that refutes this assumption and demonstrates that the speech of healthy older adults is affected by working memory limitations and processing efficiency bottlenecks. Research using language sample analysis has shown that traditional measures of verbal ability can be distinguished from measures of the grammatical complexity and propositional content of speech. Language sample analyses of a longitudinal corpus of speech samples collected from older adults have revealed that there is a marked decline in late life in the grammatical complexity of older adults' speech. This decline appears to reflect a decline in working memory. In addition, there is a less precipitous decline in propositional content. I will then turn to three lines of investigation that examine implications of this claim: (i) Research examining how older adults' speech is affected by dual-task demands, (ii) Research on Elderspeak, a simplified speech register targeted at older adults, and (iii) Research on older adults' comprehension. Each line of investigation has led to the development of promising new methodologies and avenues of investigation for the study of language and aging.