Friday, February 17, 2012

Age-Related Changes to How We Write

Photo by Marc Moss
With the boomers moving into late adulthood, many are posing questions about what constitutes healthy aging in a variety of areas such as cardiovascular health, respiratory health, and cognitive health.

Unfortunately, more research to date has been done with diseased older adults as opposed to healthy older adults. Older adults would benefit from learning what changes might be disease related and what changes are normal and expected as part of healthy aging. Gerontologists and other scholars are now starting research to rectify this ommission in the literature. Nevertheless, some research exists here and there that describes healthy aging.

For example, T. L. Mitzer and S. Kemper published a study in 2003 that analyzed the biographical statements of 118 older women (ages 78 to 91) in an effort to find an explanation for what contributed to stronger writing samples. Strong writing samples did not correlate to the writer's age. Instead, strong writing was produced by those who were in better physical condition, had higher educational levels and higher cognitive status. The high-level writing samples had the following characteristics: less-varied vocabulary, longer utterances, more clauses per utterance, more grammatically complex structures, fewer fragments.

Also interesting was that these language strengths were more pronounced in the written samples of high-performing participants than in their oral statements. This finding makes me reconsider some assumptions about gleaning personal history from older adults. I assumed that making audio recordings might allow older adults more sophisticated modes of self-expression. This study suggests that healthy, educated, cognitively in tact older adults will be more articulate writers than speakers.

Just as with other abilities, writers can preserve their abilities a bit longer with regular practice. Even though the phrase "use it or lose it" can be applied to the preservation of writing ability, there are some age-related concerns for older writers. For example, speech, language pathologist Angela Burda makes these observations. Older adults need to maintain good eye health and keep a current prescription for their eye glasses. Also, working memory becomes increasingly compromised for older adults, which means that they will need more time and additional strategies for planning and organizing their writing. Aging may also limit the writer's vocabulary, spelling, and sentence structure by degrees.

The writer's physical space and writing tools should be tailored to their changing needs. Older adults benefit from having fewer distractions and more time when composing, so working at a kitchen table while other family members zoom around would not be ideal. They also might have problems grasping a pen or pencil, so a gripper might help. They will also need more time and a clutter-free space in order to co-ordinate physical movement from their notes to the keyboard. They may need additional support if using computer technology, especially if they upgrade to a new software program.

If an older adult is showing rapid changes in his or her writing, there may be a medical problem contributing. The problem could be minor or severe. Depression, polypharmacy, malnutrition, and cognitive problems such as dementia or Parkinson's disease may be contributing to writing changes.

Even though writers do not have a Grandma Moses icon to inspire them to achieve later in life, there are many people who continute to compose or start to compose online and offline in their 70s, 80s and 90s. Invite your friends and relatives who are a generation above you to put their ideas in writing.

If you have a plan to write the great American novel, do not delay. If you wait until your sunset years, expect the task to take you a little more time and the writing to be a little less complex in diction, sentence style and overall structure.

Do you have anything in writing from your parents or grandparents?  Do you write regularly? Have you written your own life sketch? Leave a comment below. 

Is It Dementia or Delirium?
Talking with Older Adults, Serving as a Witness
Bingo--More Than Meets the Eye


  1. Thanks for sharing these thoughts. It is interesting how the brain changes as we age. I am certain that although writing may change with time, it can help strengthen our minds. It is easy to see the benefits of exercise our bodies as we get older, but it is equally important to exercise our brains. I've been fascinated with the way our language center changes. I also am amazed that sometimes people who suffer strokes are only able to communicate in a second language, not their first. Here are a couple articles that I have bookmarked.
    Nancy W

    1. Nancy: Thank you for the links! I hadn't read about the teen who switched to German. When I read quite a bit last fall about dementia, the information about bilingual / multilingual people with dementia repeatedly mentioned how they retreat into their first language when dementia becomes advanced, which presents real problems if their spouse's / caretakers do not share that language.

      Last year I read A Hundred Names for Love by Diane Ackerman. She chronicles the events of her husband's stroke and their work together to get him back to speaking, writing, and even publishing again. The neurologists were flabbergasted because the damage to his brain was so severe.

      The story Ackerman tells confirms what my speech language pathology teacher (Lyn Goldberg) taught me 1) about the placisity of the brain where one area of the brain can shift and change to take over for another damaged area. Howw cool is that? And 2) the value of being an overachiever with rehab work. Gladwell's 10,000 rule was certainly put into affect for this couple. I do agree as one of the articles states, that being drenched in language helps people hold onto language use longer. Use it or lose it!

      I certainly hope that people can be statistical outliers and defy the statistics. Aging is such an incredibly tricky business. There are vast differences among individuals throughout the aging process. The data-driven research presents one picture, but human interest stories provide great examples of people beating the odds for patterns confirmed through evidence-based practice. Hooray for the statistical anomolies!

  2. Another interesting look at aging and the middle-aged brain:

    From the article: "All other things being equal, the more years of school a subject had, the better he or she performed on every mental test. Up to age 75, the studies showed, “people with college degrees performed on complex tasks like less-educated individuals who were 10 years younger.”

    Education was also associated with a longer life and decreased risk of dementia. “The effects of education are dramatic and long term,” Dr. Lachman says."

  3. Thanks for the quotes and the link, Mark! Interesting stuff.

  4. oh goody, thanks for the recommendation of a hundred names for love. I plan to read it. :) I worked so many years in nursing homes that I truly love the generation above me :)

  5. Nancy: I value your experience immensely. Any time that you want to chime in, please do so. This blog's readers can benefit from your feedback since my approach is overly bookish (due to my lack of experience and my tendency to bring my English teacher skills to the table--which can be limiting and myopic). Thanks for loaning your energies this way!

  6. Karen, thank you for this informative piece. Well, I think there may have been a "Grandma Moses" type in the writing field by the Name of Harry Bernstein as he wrote "The Invisible Wall" A Love Story That Broke Barriers" when he was in his 90's. --Barb Bohan

  7. Barb: Thanks for the information about Bernstein. I had not heard of him. Here is the wiki link for other interested parties. He was a magazine writer, but didn't start writing novels until after his wife's death, as a way to assuage the lonliness. I see that he wrote 3 more novels after that (one published after his death at age 101). Rock on, Harry!