As we age, we do everything more slowly, as the result of the accumulation of years of slowing of the central nervous system, which actually starts in the 30’s. This slowdown shows itself in surprising ways.
Older adults cannot take in information as quickly as they once did, even if they do not have cognitive impairment. By taking longer to encode spoken information an older person can sometimes not be able to recall it, which makes this problem appear to be a memory problem. Audiologists (McCoy, Tun, Cox and Wingfield of Brandeis University) studying the effect of aging, speech rate, and memory, concluded that difficulty in understanding rapid speech is greater in older adults, causing them to miss chunks of the speech, such as a doctor’s instructions about how to take medication.
Age related changes to a person’s processing speed, memory capacity, and sensory acuity magnify difficulties in understanding spoken language. Fortunately, slowing in these areas is less than in other non-language tasks. Vocabulary and the ability to understand the context of language are generally preserved as we age because we have spent a lifetime practicing these skills.
Researchers suggest fast talkers slow down their speech with natural pauses in between phrases, which allows the listener to literally “catch up.” Sandra McCoy, the lead researcher, took care to make this point: “It is not desirable to use exaggerated intonation or unnaturally simple words or grammar when speaking to older adults. Such speech patterns are sometimes referred to as “elderspeak” and can be quite correctly perceived by them as patronizing.”
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Key Source: Aging in a Fast Paced World, Rapid Speech and Its Effect on Understanding, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA.