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More Writing Tools


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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.

Reading and writing assistance increases the chance of getting a Disability Support Pension



One in eight disability support claims rejected are because the applicant is unable to supply the requested information.
Shutterstock

Nary Hong, UNSW

The 2019 Australian Conference of Economists is taking place in Melbourne from July 14 to 16.

During the conference The Conversation is publishing a selection of articles by the authors of papers being delivered at the conference. Others are here.


The Disability Support Pension is important in the lives of the Australians who receive it. The latest figures show that’s 4% of the working age population.

Yet a huge proportion of claims for it are rejected. Over the four years from 2011-12 to 2014-15 the average “grant rate” was 43%, meaning 57% of claims were rejected.

The largest non-medical reason given for rejection is failure to supply the requested information, accounting for one in eight rejections.

In a paper to be presented to the Australian Conference of Economists in Melbourne on Tuesday I examine the extent to which that is due to a specific kind of disability – an inability to properly complete the form.

Does form-filling matter?

The Bureau of Statistics survey of disability, ageing and carers provides rich data the on employment, socio-demographic characteristics and health conditions of disabled Australians, including the extent to which they have assistance with reading and writing.

One question is

do/does you/he/she receive assistance from any organised services to help with reading and writing tasks?

Another is

do/does you/he/she receive assistance from anyone else, such as a partner or spouse/parent, family, friends or neighbours to help with reading and writing tasks?

I combined the answers to these questions to create a yes/no answer to the broader question of whether or not an applicant for the Disability Support Pension obtained help with reading and writing from any source.

Confidentialised unit record files from 2003, 2009 and 2015 gave me data on 18,141 disabled Australians between the ages of 16 to 64.

Help with reading does matter…

I found that reading and writing assistance is associated with an increase of about 20% in the probability of getting the Disability Support Pension.

Most of that reading and writing support comes from informal sources (family, friends and neighbours) rather than formal ones.

And it seems to be more than an association. Using statistical techniques to set aside the impact of other things that might be driving the effect, I find that the impact of help with literacy is even greater.

Ideally, help shouldn’t have much impact, but the claim form for the Disability Support Pension is 33 pages long.




Read more:
Financial literacy is a public policy problem


The government has introduced new assessment tables in a legitimate and successful attempt to restrain the growth of the Disability Support Pension.

But there can be no case for (unintentionally) using complexity as another means of restraining growth in use of the pension.

…we should be taking it mainstream

The strong positive impact of the reading assistance that has been available builds a case for providing more of it, through formal means, to ensure that fewer people are deterred from applying for benefits for which they are eligible.

Greater formal provision of help would also ease the pressure on informal helpers, making it easier for them to stay in the workforce and improving their emotional well-being.

This finding has implications for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, for which reading and writing is even more important to navigate. The NDIS emphasises individual choices, making the application process particularly complex.

Disability with paperwork should not be a barrier to receiving disability benefits.




Read more:
The NDIS hasn’t made much difference to carers’ opportunities for paid work


The Conversation


Nary Hong, PhD candidate in Economics, UNSW

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