January 27, 2017

Communication and the Normal Aging Process


by Amy Shollenbarger, Ph.D., CCC-SLP

Communication is vital to humanity. Most individuals acquire language with relative ease, yet as we age, certain changes in communication may occur as a part of the normal aging process. Normal changes that occur in our ability to communicate as we age may include language, speech, swallowing, or hearing. Understanding normal changes due to aging is important so we know when further examination by a speech-language pathologist or audiologist, due to abnormal changes, may be needed (Busacco, 1999).

Hearing is most negatively affected as we age, with approximately 35% of individuals over the age of 65 having some type of hearing loss (Bance, 2007). Articulation, or the way we produce speech sounds, remains adequate as we age (Hooper & Cralidis, 2009) although significant tooth loss may impact articulation skills (Busacco, 1999). Changes in voice skills may include more tremor, breathiness, roughness, or pitch changes, but intelligibility is not usually affected (Ryu et al., 2015). Receptive language ability may decrease due to slower auditory processing, but expressive language is usually not affected other than minor word finding difficulties (Yorkston, Bourgeois, & Baylor, 2010). Swallowing may require greater effort or time as one ages, which may lead to weight loss (Busacco, 1999).

Communication skills stay relatively intact and improve throughout childhood and the adult years. Let’s examine normal aging and communication from the 20’s and beyond (adapted from Loudermill, Lowry, & McCullough, 2010). Long term memory, complex reasoning, and creativity are greatest in your 20’s. In the 30’s minimal changes begin to occur, but performance on functional, everyday tasks is not affected. As individuals move into their 40’s, slight word finding difficulties may occur. More effort is required to do things like remember phone numbers, do mental calculations, or play challenging card games. Reduced short term memory begins to be noticeable. In your 50’s, processing speed slows down, and it takes longer to learn new things. Problems with visuospatial skills occur. For example, you may occasionally forget where you parked or have more difficulty copying a three-dimensional design. It is more difficult to multitask and harder to maintain attention and remember details. For example, you may remember fewer details of a novel or movie than a younger person would. Placing an event in time and place becomes more difficult. You may remember the event but not exactly when or where it occurred. Word finding difficulties occur, but do not interfere with everyday tasks. In your 60’s, decreased attention, memory, and slower processing of information occurs. It becomes more difficult to tune out distractions. You may have difficulty remembering names or retrieving well-known words, which can be frustrating at times. However, performance on daily tasks should not be negatively affected. In your 70’s, cognitive abilities vary greatly due to various factors such as education, nutrition, and genetics. Those with other health problems – hypertension, diabetes, and heavy alcohol use – show a decline in memory and general cognitive ability. However, individuals in their 70’s and beyond who are aging normally and in good health, should maintain adequate communication skills.

There are several things individuals can do to preserve communication and cognitive abilities as discussed by Calvagna (2016). Continue learning – pick up a new hobby, try a new recipe, learn a new language. Stay physically active by exercising. Keep your mind active by reading, doing crossword puzzles, and engaging in crafts. Eat healthily and avoid tobacco. Engage in social interaction and communicate with family and friends regularly. Volunteer for a cause or a charity, join clubs and/or participate in religious activities. All of these things will keep your brain healthy and active, and contribute to good communication skills as one ages.

Bance, M. (2007). Hearing and aging. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 176(7), 925-927, doi: 10.1503/cmaj.070007

Busacco, D. (1999). Normal communication changes in older adults. Let’s Talk, 72, 49-50.

Calvagna, M. (2016). Ten tips for healthy aging. Health Library: Evidence-Based Information.

Hooper, C. R., & Cralidis, A. (2009). Normal changes in the speech of older adults. You’ve still got what it takes, it just takes a little longer! Perspectives on Gerontology, 14(2), 47-56.

Loudermill, C., Lowry, M., & McCullough, K.C. (2010). The aging brain: What’s normal and what’s not. Presentation at the Arkansas Speech-Language-Hearing Association annual convention, Little Rock, AR.

Ryu, C. H., Han, S., Lee, M., Kim, S. Y., Nam, S. Y., Roh, J., & … Choi, S. (2015). Voice changes in elderly adults: Prevalence and the effect of social, behavioral, and health status on voice quality. Journal of The American Geriatrics Society, 63(8), 1608-1614. doi:10.1111/jgs.13559

Yorkston, K. M., Bourgeois, M. S. & Baylor, C. R. (2010). Communication and aging. Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Clinics of North America, 21(2), 309-319.