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Poor coherence in older people's speech is explained by impaired semantic and executive processes

By Paul Hoffman, Ekaterina Loginova, Asatta Russell

Posted 11 May 2018
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/320473 (published DOI: 10.7554/eLife.38907)

The ability to speak coherently is essential for effective communication but declines with age: older people more frequently produce tangential, off-topic speech. The cognitive factors underpinning this decline are poorly understood. We predicted that maintaining coherence relies on effective regulation of activated semantic knowledge about the world, and particularly on the selection of currently relevant semantic representations to drive speech production. To test this, we collected speech samples and measures of executive and semantic ability from 60 young and older adults, using a novel computational method to quantify coherence. Semantic selection ability predicted coherence, as did level of semantic knowledge and domain-general executive ability. These factors fully accounted for the age-related coherence deficit. Our results indicate that maintaining coherence in speech becomes more challenging as people age because they accumulate more knowledge but are less able to effectively regulate how it is activated and used.

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