The Language in the Aging Brain (LAB) lab has been continuously funded since 1976, first by the VA, and since 1997 by the NIA. During this time we demonstrated that lexical retrieval and sentence-level processing decline with aging, correlated these changes with age-related deficits in cognitive function (specifically, components of executive system function), and began to examine health-related and brain-related correlates. In our current funding cycle, we are integrating health (including brain structure and function) into our studies of cognition and language, and testing the hypothesis that age-related declines in certain language functions are mediated by brain-based changes in executive system functions associated with declining vascular health. Our current research supports this hypothesis, but opens several new avenues for investigation. We find that hypertension (but, surprisingly, not diabetes) is linked to deficits in both lexical retrieval and executive function, and to bilateral changes in frontal cortical and subcortical regions. We are finding, further, that executive abilities (specifically, ability to change set and shift attention) emerge as powerful predictors of sentence-level processing deficits in normal aging. With these new findings in hand, we now propose to address two principal research questions: 1) What are the cognitive, health, and brain predictors of decline in language function with normal aging;2) What are the cognitive, health, and brain predictors of successful language function with normal aging? Given our extensive study of age-related changes in language over 30 years, the unique opportunity this renewal proposal affords is to integrate theory, methods, and findings from four disciplines (cognitive neuroscience, neurolinguistics, neuroimaging, and geriatrics) to allow comprehensive explanations not only of performance decline in language skills with aging but also of performance maintenance (or improvement). This project is poised to yield direct and immediate diagnostic and intervention strategies that can optimize functional communication of older adults.

Public Health Relevance

By uncovering cognitive-, health-, and brain-related predictors of language decline in aging, our research program will yield results leading directly to diagnostic and intervention strategies that can optimize functional communication of older adults. Aging does not automatically signify decline. In this new funding cycle we will also delineate a set of predictors for successful language and communication performance in aging. Data from our new research will be transferable to communication partners and caretakers of elderly individuals, enabling older adults to improve and enrich their communication in everyday life.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute on Aging (NIA)
Research Project (R01)
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Study Section
Language and Communication Study Section (LCOM)
Program Officer
Wagster, Molly V
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Boston University
Schools of Medicine
United States
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