Word Recognition Patterns Change as We Grow Older

First Posted: Nov 24, 2012 11:44 AM EST

As the age deteriorates a human body undergoes changes that sometimes limit our activities. A significant loss of vision is no exception.  Old age also brings pain, frustration, energy loss that multiples as days pass.

Focusing on the aspect of vision, the researchers from the School of Psychology have analyzed the eye movements of young and old people with a help of a unique eye test and have noticed that word recognition pattern alter to a great extent as we grow older.

Using an innovative method of digitally manipulating text combined with precise measures of readers eye movements they have provided an insight into how young and older adults utilize different visual clues during reading.

With the help of precise eye measures of readers eye movements the researchers assessed how well the subjects could read lines of text that had been digitally manipulated to enhance the salience of different visual information. They had blurred some texts sometimes and other times the features of the individual letters were sharply defined.

On conducting this analysis they observed young adults between 18-30 years found it easiest to read lines of text when the fine visual detail was present, this was more difficult for older adults.

Older adults who were beyond 65 years and beyond found it easier to read more blurred text. These findings support the view that older adults use a different reading strategy from younger adults and that they rely more than young adults on holistic cues to the identities of words, such as word shape.

This research is crucial as it makes an important contribution to understanding why older people have difficulty in reading. The findings will promote further work to more fully understand this difficulty and already points to ways in which it can be combatted.

Dr Kevin Paterson, from the University of Leicester, said: "The findings showed that the difficulty older readers often experience is likely to be related to a progressive decline in visual sensitivity, particularly for visual detail, due to optical changes and changes in neural transmission even in individuals with apparently normal vision.

"However, the findings also showed that older readers comprehended text just as accurately as younger readers. Consequently, although normal aging clearly leads to important changes in reading behaviour, it seems that adaptive responses to the changing nature of the visual input may help older adults to read and understand text efficiently well into later life."

Dr Paterson said: "As we get older, we lose visual sensitivity, particularly to fine visual detail, due to changes in the eye and changes in neural transmission. This loss of visual sensitivity is found even in individuals with apparently normal vision and is not corrected by optical aids, such as glasses or contact lenses. However, it is likely to have consequences for reading.

"The ability to read effectively is fundamental to participation in modern society, and the challenge age-related visual impairment presents to meeting everyday demands of living, working and citizenship is a matter of concern. The difficulty older adults have in reading is an important contributing factor to social exclusion. The RNIB has identified age-related reading difficulty amongst the over 65s as highly detrimental to quality of life and a barrier to employment.

"The fact that people have greater difficulty in reading as they get older limits their ability to engage in everyday activities (e.g., reading the newspaper, a utility bill, or the instructions on a medicine bottle), to continue to work, to read for leisure, to access education and knowledge, and to interact with others. Being able to understand the causes of this reading difficulty is an important first step to identifying ways to combat it.

"With an aging population and a rising retirement age, it is clear such problems pose serious economic and social challenges for the future. Consequently, research on this topic is likely to become increasingly important and both understanding and combatting age-related visual impairment will be important for reducing social exclusion in the elderly.

Their results have been published in the journal Psychology and Aging.

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