Study Finds As We Age, Our Reading Skills Tend To Change
November 26, 2012

Study Finds As We Age, Our Reading Skills Tend To Change

Lee Rannals for — Your Universe Online

According to research published in the journal Psychology and Aging, word recognition patterns can change as we grow older.

University of Leicester psychologists carried out a study into eye-movements of young and old people to examine reading styles in the different age groups. The team discovered for the first time that the way we read words changes the older we get.

Researchers conducted experiments that used precise measures of readers' eye movements to determine how well they read lines of text that have been digitally modified in order to help enhance the salience of different visual information.

For the experiment, sometimes the text would show up blurred, while other times the feature of the letters were sharply defined.

While young people between 18- and 30-years-old found it easier to read lines of text when the fine visual detail was present, adults over 65 years old found it more difficult. However, the older adult group found it easier to read more blurred text.

The findings support the view that older adults use a different reading strategy than younger adults, and that they rely more than young adults do on holistic cues to the identities of words. The study helps to understand why older adults have difficult reading as well. The team hopes the findings will promote further work to gain a better understanding.

"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," Dr Kevin Paterson, from the University of Leicester, said in a statement.

"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 behavior, 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," said Paterson.

The study could help to gain an understanding of what takes place in the eye and brain as a result of the normal aging process affect reading.

"As we get older, we lose visual sensitivity, particularly to fine visual detail, due to changes in the eye and changes in neural transmission," Paterson said. "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."

He said that the ability to read effectively is a crucial part of society, and the challenge age-related visual impairment presents is a concern.

"The difficulty older adults have in reading is an important contributing factor to social exclusion," Paterson noted. "The RNIB has identified age-related reading difficulty amongst the over 65s as highly detrimental to quality of life and a barrier to employment."

He added that the fact that people have a greater difficulty in reading the older they get limits their ability to work, read, access education and knowledge, and interact with others.

"Being able to understand the causes of this reading difficulty is an important first step to identifying ways to combat it," Paterson continued.

"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 combating age-related visual impairment will be important for reducing social exclusion in the elderly," he concluded.