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Researchers found that older adults’ aerobic fitness levels are directly related to the incidence of age-related language failures such as ‘tip-of-the-tongue’ states

Healthy older people who exercise regularly are less inclined to struggle to find words to express themselves, research led by the University of Birmingham has discovered.

Researchers found that older adults’ aerobic fitness levels are directly related to the incidence of age-related language failures such as ‘tip-of-the-tongue’ states.

The research, published today in Scientific Reports, is the first of its kind to investigate the relationship between aerobic fitness levels and temporary cognitive lapses, such as not having a word come to mind when speaking – known as a ‘tip-of-the-tongue’ state.

People in a tip-of-the-tongue state have a strong conviction that they know a word, but are unable to produce it, and this phenomena occurs more frequently as we grow older.

The University of Birmingham study - carried out in collaboration with the University of Agder in Norway, the University of Leuven in Belgium and King’s College London - measured the occurrence of tip-of-the-tongue states in a psycholinguistic experiment.

The study saw a group of 28 healthy adults (20 women with the average age of 70 and 8 men with the average age of 67), being compared in a ‘tip-of-the-tongue’ language test to 27 young people (19 women with the average age of 23 and 8 men with the average age of 22).

The test involved a ‘definition filling task’, done on a computer. They were asked to name famous people in the UK, such as authors, politicians and actors, based on 20 questions about them. They were also given the definitions of 20 ‘low frequency’ and 20 ‘easy’ words and asked whether they knew the word relating to the definition.

The participants’ underwent a static bike cycling test – a gold standard test which quantified their ability to use oxygen during exercise and their resulting individual aerobic fitness levels.

Lead author Dr Katrien Segaert, of the University of Birmingham’s School of Psychology, said: “Older adults free from medical diseases still experience age-related cognitive decline.

“Significantly, what we found was that the degree of decline is related to one’s aerobic fitness.

“In our study, the higher the older adults’ aerobic fitness level, the lower the probability of experiencing a tip-of-the-tongue state.

“Importantly, our results also showed that the relationship between the frequency of tip-of-the-tongue occurrences and aerobic fitness levels exists over and above the influence of a person’s age and vocabulary size.”

Dr Segaert said that tip-of-the-tongue states are uniquely a problem with language functioning.

“Older adults sometimes worry that tip-of-the-tongue states indicate serious memory problems but this is a misconception: tip-of-the-tongue states are not associated with memory loss,” she added. “In fact, older adults usually have a much larger vocabulary than young adults. Instead, tip-of-the-tongue states occur when the meaning of a word is available in our memory, but the sound form of the word can temporarily not be accessed.”

“Accessing the sound forms of words is essential for successful and fluent language production, and its disruption has very noticeable negative consequences for older adults.”

She said she hoped the study would add gravitas to the public health message that regular exercise is important to ensure healthy ageing.

She added: “There are a lot of findings already on the benefits of aerobic fitness and regular exercise, and our research demonstrates another side of the benefits, namely a relationship between fitness and language skills. We were able to show, for the first time, that the benefits of aerobic fitness extend to the domain of language.”

“Maintaining good language skills is extremely important for older adults. Older adults frequently have word finding difficulties and they experience these as particularly irritating and embarrassing.”

“Speaking is a skill we all rely on every day. Communication with others helps us maintain social relationships and independence into old age.”

In future research, the University of Birmingham plans to undertake exercise intervention studies to determine whether regular exercise can successfully increase language abilities.

For more information please contact Emma McKinney, Communications Manager (Health Sciences), University of Birmingham, call +44 (0)121 414 6681. Alternatively, contact the Press Office out of hours on +44 (0)7789 921165.

  • The University of Birmingham is ranked amongst the world’s top 100 institutions. Its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers, teachers and more than 5,000 international students from over 150 countries.
  • Segaert et al (2018). ‘Higher physical fitness levels are associated with less language decline in healthy ageing’. Scientific Reports. DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-24972-1
  • To read the paper click here 
  • Authors of the research were: K. Segaert1,2 , S.J.E. Lucas3,2, C.V. Burley3 , P. Segaert4 , A. E. Milner1, M. Ryan5 , L. Wheeldon6,1
  • Author affiliations:
  1. School of Psychology, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK
  2. Centre for Human Brain Health, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK
  3. School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK
  4. Department of Mathematics, University of Leuven, Leuven, Belgium
  5. Cardiovascular Division, King’s College London, London, UK
  6. Department of Foreign Languages and Translation, University of Agder, Kristiansand, Norway
  • The research was funded by a Welcome Trust ISSF Award (awarded to Katrien Segaert, Linda Wheeldon and Sam Lucas).
  • Aerobic fitness was quantified using a physiological measure of oxygen uptake from a graded exercise test (V̇O2max score).
  • In the ‘tip-of-the-tongue language test’, a warning signal was displayed after which a definition appeared centred on the screen. The definition remained on screen until the participant responded as follows: they knew the word (button press ‘Yes’, and then said the word out loud), did not know the word (button press ‘No’), or had a tip-of-the-tongue experience (button press ‘ToT’). If participants indicated they experienced a tip-of-the-tongue state, they were asked to provide three pieces of information about its sound structure in response to prompts on the screen which asked them to: 1) guess the initial letter or sound; 2) guess the final letter or sound, and 3) guess the number of syllables. Finally, in order to determine if they were correct in thinking that they knew the target word, participants were asked to select it from a list of four words that were displayed on the screen (the correct answer and three foils) or to indicate that the word they were thinking of was not in the list.