The effect of plausibility on sentence comprehension among older adults and its relation to cognitive functions


Background/Study Context: Older adults show age-related decline in complex-sentence comprehension. This has been attributed to a decrease in cognitive abilities that may support language processing, such as working memory (e.g., Caplan, DeDe, Waters, & Michaud, 2011,Psychology and Aging, 26, 439-450). The authors examined whether older adults have difficulty comprehending semantically implausible sentences and whether specific executive functions contribute to their comprehension performance.Methods: Forty-two younger adults (aged 18-35) and 42 older adults (aged 55-75) were tested on two experimental tasks: a multiple negative comprehension task and an information processing battery.Results: Both groups, older and younger adults, showed poorer performance for implausible sentences than for plausible sentences; however, no interaction was found between plausibility and age group. A regression analysis revealed that inhibition efficiency, as measured by a task that required resistance to proactive interference, predicted comprehension of implausible sentences in older adults only. Consistent with the compensation hypothesis, the older adults with better inhibition skills showed better comprehension than those with poor inhibition skills.Conclusion: The findings suggest that semantic implausibility, along with syntactic complexity, increases linguistic and cognitive processing loads on auditory sentence comprehension. Moreover, the contribution of inhibitory control to the processing of semantic plausibility, particularly among older adults, suggests that the relationship between cognitive ability and language comprehension is strongly influenced by age.

Publication Title

Experimental Aging Research