Writing into old age!

Thank goodness for this!

It’s not exactly a ball of fun growing old. But while somethings inevitable decline writing isn’t one of them. This is a fascinating article from The Conversation.

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One skill that doesn’t deteriorate with age

Reading and writing can prevent cognitive decline.
AJP/Shutterstock.com

Roger J. Kreuz, University of Memphis

When Toni Morrison died on Aug. 5, the world lost one of its most influential literary voices.

But Morrison wasn’t a literary wunderkind. “The Bluest Eye,” Morrison’s first novel, wasn’t published until she was 39. And her last, “God Help the Child,” appeared when she was 84. Morrison published four novels, four children’s books, many essays and other works of nonfiction after the age of 70.

Morrison isn’t unique in this regard. Numerous writers produce significant work well into their 70s, 80s and even their 90s. Herman Wouk, for example, was 97 when he published his final novel, “The Lawgiver.”

Such literary feats underscore an important point: Age doesn’t seem to diminish our capacity to speak, write and learn new vocabulary. Our eyesight may dim and our recall may falter, but, by comparison, our ability to produce and to comprehend language is well preserved into older adulthood.

In our forthcoming book, “Changing Minds: How Aging Affects Language and How Language Affects Aging,” my co-author, Richard M. Roberts, and I highlight some of the latest research that has emerged on language and aging. For those who might fear the loss of their language abilities as they grow older, there’s plenty of good news to report.

Language mastery is a lifelong journey

Some aspects of our language abilities, such as our knowledge of word meanings, actually improve during middle and late adulthood.

One study, for example, found that older adults living in a retirement community near Chicago had an average vocabulary size of over 21,000 words. The researchers also studied a sample of college students and found that their average vocabularies included only about 16,000 words.

In another study, older adult speakers of Hebrew – with an average age of 75 – performed better than younger and middle-aged participants on discerning the meaning of words.

On the other hand, our language abilities sometimes function as a canary in the cognitive coal mine: They can be a sign of future mental impairment decades before such issues manifest themselves.

In 1996, epidemiologist David Snowdon and a team of researchers studied the writing samples of women who had become nuns. They found that the grammatical complexity of essays written by the nuns when they joined their religious order could predict which sisters would develop dementia several decades later. (Hundreds of nuns have donated their brains to science, and this allows for a conclusive diagnosis of dementia.)

While Toni Morrison’s writing remained searingly clear and focused as she aged, other authors have not been as fortunate. The prose in Iris Murdoch’s final novel, “Jackson’s Dilemma,” suggests some degree of cognitive impairment. Indeed, she died from dementia-related causes four years after its publication.

Toni Morrison published her last novel, ‘God Help the Child,’ when she was 84 years old.
AP Photo/Michel Euler

Don’t put down that book

Our ability to read and write can be preserved well into older adulthood. Making use of these abilities is important, because reading and writing seem to prevent cognitive decline.

Keeping a journal, for example, has been shown to substantially reduce the risk of developing various forms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.

Reading fiction, meanwhile, has been associated with a longer lifespan. A large-scale study conducted by the Yale University School of Public Health found that people who read books for at least 30 minutes a day lived, on average, nearly two years longer than nonreaders. This effect persisted even after controlling for factors like gender, education and health. The researchers suggest that the imaginative work of constructing a fictional universe in our heads helps grease our cognitive wheels.

Language is a constant companion during our life journey, so perhaps it’s no surprise that it’s interwoven into our health and our longevity. And researchers continue to make discoveries about the connections between language and aging. For example, a study published in July 2019 found that studying a foreign language in older adulthood improves overall cognitive functioning.

A thread seems to run through most of the findings: In order to age well, it helps to keep writing, reading and talking.

While few of us possess the gifts of a Toni Morrison, all of us stand to gain by continuing to flex our literary muscles.

Richard M. Roberts, a U.S. diplomat currently serving as the Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Okinawa, Japan, is a contributing author of this article.

Roger J. Kreuz and Richard M. Roberts are the authors of:

Changing Minds: How Aging Affects Language and How Language Affects Aging The Conversation

MIT Press provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.

Roger J. Kreuz, Associate Dean, College of Arts & Sciences, University of Memphis

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

ooOOoo

This is not about dogs but it is about writing about dogs!

23 thoughts on “Writing into old age!

  1. This is encouraging! I knew my profession would promote longevity. Now I know there is hope that maybe I will write that bestseller or that screenplay. Great read. Thanks, Paul.

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  2. Good one, Paul! Thanks! Nice to see that ‘use it or lose it’ applies to the brain, too. Exercise always seems to be the answer. Have a great day !

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  3. Good to know we are helping keep our brains active Paul, what with writing and painting.. Funny you mentioned Iris Murdoch I watched a film of her life only last evening.. So sad to watch the deterioration on film, and even worse when its loved one’s close at home..

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    1. Well Irene, in my own case both a more slower learner but a more rapid forgetter! But it’s all good, especially Jeannie and the dogs. I think I’m getting more emotional in my old age as well!

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  4. Very interesting article and timely. My sister and I were commenting to each other last week that we are both having more difficulty spelling words that were simple for us a few weeks ago. As oxygen levels lower and carbon dioxide expells less, we are both finding writing more difficult. I exercise almost daily to some intensity while she does it randomly in spurts. I read a great deal, almost constantly while my sister relies heavily on TV. I’m hoping to stay cognitive longer but who knows. I’m also trying to find time to relearn my first language to keep the brain firing. I hope his book has more good news. I’m trying to hurry and get everything written down, just in case. 😉

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    1. Marlene, I thought that I left a comment last night but I can’t see it. Essentially I agree with you. I have recently lost my touch-typing skills and struggle to spell certain words. It’s a big drag! Like you I’m writing a great deal hoping to get it all recorded before it disappears!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m sorry you are going through it too. I’m journaling my way through this. The kids still think I can beat a terminal diagnosis. I’d like to prove them right but just in case…

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