Although healthy aging is generally characterized by declines in both brain structure and function, there is variability in the extent to which these changes result in observable cognitive decline. Specific to language, age-related differences in language production are observed more frequently than in language comprehension, although both are associated with increased right prefrontal cortex activation in older adults. The current paper explores these differences in the language system, integrating them with theories of behavioral and neural cognitive aging. Overall, data indicate that frontal reorganization of the dorsal language stream in older adults benefits task performance during comprehension but not always during production. We interpret these results in the CRUNCH framework (compensation-related utilization of neural circuits hypothesis), which suggests that differences in task and process difficulty may underlie older adults' ability to successfully adapt. That is, older adults may be able to neurally adapt to less difficult tasks (i.e., comprehension) but fail to do so successfully as difficulty increases (i.e., production). We hypothesize greater age-related differences in aspects of language that rely more heavily on the dorsal language stream (e.g., syntax and production) and that recruit general cognitive resources that rely on frontal regions (e.g., executive function, working memory, and inhibition). Moreover, there should be a relative sparing of tasks that rely predominantly on ventral stream regions. These results are both consistent with patterns of age-related structural decline and retention and with varying levels of difficulty across comprehension and production. This neurocognitive framework for understanding age-related differences in the language system centers on the interaction between prefrontal cortex activation, structural integrity, and task difficulty.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Linguistics and Language