Reading in normally aging adults

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The activity of reading raises fundamental theoretical and practical questions about healthy cognitive aging. Reading relies greatly on knowledge of patterns of language and of meaning at the level of words and topics of text. Further, this knowledge must be rapidly accessed so that it can be coordinated with processes of perception, attention, memory and motor control that sustain skilled reading at rates of four-to-five words a second. As such, reading depends both on crystallized semantic intelligence which grows or is maintained through healthy aging, and on components of fluid intelligence which decline with age. Reading is important to older adults because it facilitates completion of everyday tasks that are essential to independent living. In addition, it entails the kind of active mental engagement that can preserve and deepen the cognitive reserve that may mitigate the negative consequences of age-related changes in the brain. This chapter reviews research on the front end of reading (word recognition) and on the back end of reading (text memory) because both of these abilities are surprisingly robust to declines associated with cognitive aging. For word recognition, that robustness is surprising because rapid processing of the sort found in reading is usually impaired by aging; for text memory, it is surprising because other types of episodic memory performance (e.g., paired associates) substantially decline in aging. These two otherwise quite different levels of reading comprehension remain robust because they draw on the knowledge of language that older adults gain through a life-time of experience with language.


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