Language Complexity and Aging

Minxia Luo, FAN Awardee 2021

We all age. When we age, we inevitably face cognitive decline. As this is sometimes first indicated in small changes in the way we speak, language can be an invaluable indicator for the early detection of dementia.

So far, most studies invited participants to the lab so they can produce speech which can then be observed. However, the problem is that the way people talk with unfamiliar scientists is often very different to how they talk in daily life with their friends, family, or spouse. Minxia Luo set out to fill this gap with her award-winning dissertation “Cognitive Aging and Language Complexity: Variations Across Interlocutors as Contexts in the Real World”.

Using the “Electronically Activated Recorder” (or “EAR”), Minxia Luo and her team unobtrusively and continuously gathered 30-second long audio files from young and older adults from their daily life during a span of 2-4 days. In total, they examined over 49,000 audio files from 213 participants aged 18 to 94 years from the US and Switzerland.

Results showed that although older people overall produced simpler language than younger people did, their language was much more complex when they were talking to their spouse, close friends and family than it was when they were speaking to strangers. When older adults were talking with their spouses, they even produced equally complex language as younger adults. This may mean that talking with loved ones may help maintain the mental capacity of older adults.

The animated short film is set in the aula of the University of Zurich. Introduced by the vice-president research Elisabeth Stark, a cartoon version of Minxia Luo holds a speech in front of a fictional audience.
 

Film credits
Produced by Graduate Campus, University of Zurich, Katharina Weikl
Research & Script: Minxia Luo
Script assistance: Manuel Kaufmann
Illustration: Carlo Roman Picaso
Vice President Research: Elisabeth Stark
Voiceover: Sarah Robins
Music & Sound Design: Mario Marchisella
Animation tutor: Nikolay Stanev