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Elderly people are slower to understand expressions

26 April 2021

People find it more difficult to suppress the literal meanings of idiomatic language from as early as the age of 40. This is the finding of research carried out by Amélie la Roi, who studied how elderly people process and understand idiomatic expressions in Dutch. Although the way that we process language slowly changes as we age, claims La Roi, we continue to do so very efficiently until late in life. La Roi will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen (UG) on 3 May.

Everyone wants to grow old, but no one wants to be old. Ageing leads to physical ailments and affects people’s mental capacities; in other words, their cognitive skills. What consequences does this have for their ability to communicate using language? La Roi studied this question in the context of her PhD project at the UG.

Experience versus processing

Many idiomatic expressions can be interpreted both literally and figuratively. The Dutch expression tegen de lamp lopen literally means ‘to bump into a lamp’, but anyone with a reasonable knowledge of Dutch will understand that it should usually be interpreted in the figurative sense of ‘to get caught’. ‘It is very interesting to study such expressions,’ says La Roi. ‘Our knowledge of expressions increases as we get older, but how we process them partly depends on our cognitive skills, which decline as we age.’

Over 40s slower to suppress literal meaning

La Roi’s research shows that adults as young as the age of 40 start to become slower at suppressing the literal meaning of expressions, which is a necessary step in the process of extracting the figurative meaning. In addition, elderly people turned out to be slower than young adults at activating the figurative meaning of expressions.

Amélie la Roi (Photo: Jennieke Oordt)
Amélie la Roi (Photo: Jennieke Oordt)


La Roi’s research also shows that both young adults and elderly people use context information to make it easier to process idiomatic expressions, for example when the expression tegen de lamp lopen is preceded by a sentence about a thief. This skill remains stable over a period of several years.

Benefit of experience

However, in contrast to young adults, elderly people really need this context information to process literal sentences, but tend to need them less for figurative expressions. This is because expressions often form a fixed combination of words. La Roi: ‘An experienced brain will automatically complete the sentence tegen de lamp … lopen. Once you realize that you need the figurative meaning and have suppressed the literal meaning, it will take very little time to process this figurative meaning. It seems that we use experience to compensate for what we lose as a result of cognitive decline. This is a positive message when it comes to ageing.’

Important base measurement

According to La Roi, her research meets a need: ‘A lot of research has been done on the effects of ageing on aspects such as memory, but we know very little as yet about how linguistic skills change. My results will form an important base measurement for further research into cognitive ageing due to age-related illnesses such as dementia. Now that we know that the effects of cognitive ageing start to appear at around the age of 40, we know that it is important to include middle-aged adults in such research.’

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Amélie la Roi,

Last modified:26 April 2021 09.18 a.m.
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