Word-finding Problems

Data from more than 17,000 healthy people aged 50 and over has revealed that the more regularly participants engaged with word puzzles, the better they performed on tasks assessing attention, reasoning and memory.

Study participants took part in online cognitive tests, as well as being asked how frequently they did word puzzles such as crosswords. There was a direct relationship between the frequency of word puzzle use and the speed and accuracy of performance on nine cognitive tasks.

The effect was considerable. For example, on test measures of grammatical reasoning speed and short-term memory accuracy, performing word puzzles was associated with brain function equivalent to ten years younger than participants’ chronological age.

The next question is whether you can improve brain function by engaging in puzzles.

The study used participants in the PROTECT online platform, run by the University of Exeter and Kings College London. Currently, more than 22,000 healthy people aged between 50 and 96 are registered in the study. PROTECT is a 10 year study with participants being followed up annually to enable a better understanding of cognitive trajectories in this age range.


The Relationship Between the Frequency of Word Puzzle Use and Cognitive Function in a Large Sample of Adults Aged 50 to 96 Years, was presented at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference (AAIC) 2017 on July 17.

Here’s an encouraging study for all those who think that, because of age or physical damage, they must resign themselves to whatever cognitive impairment or decline they have suffered. In this study, older adults who had suffered from aphasia for a long time nevertheless improved their language function after six weeks of intensive training.

The study involved nine seniors with chronic aphasia and 10 age-matched controls. Those with aphasia were given six weeks of intensive and specific language therapy, after which they showed significantly better performance at naming objects. Brain scans revealed that the training had not only stimulated language circuits, but also integrated the default mode network (the circuits used when our brain is in its ‘resting state’ — i.e., not thinking about anything in particular), producing brain activity that was similar to that of the healthy controls.

Moreover, these new circuits continued to be active after training, with participants continuing to improve.

Previous research has implicated abnormal functioning of the default mode network in other cognitive disorders.

Although it didn’t reach significance, there was a trend suggesting that the level of integration of the default mode network prior to therapy predicted the outcome of the training.

The findings are especially relevant to the many seniors who no longer receive treatment for stroke damage they may have had for many years. They also add to the growing evidence for the importance of the default mode network. Changes in the integration of the default mode network with other circuits have also been implicated in age-related cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s.

Interestingly, some research suggests that meditation may help improve the coherence of brainwaves that overlap the default mode network. Meditation, already shown to be helpful for improving concentration and focus, may be of greater benefit for fighting age-related cognitive decline than we realize!

It is common for people to feel as they get older that they more frequently experience occasions when they cannot immediately retrieve a word they know perfectly well ("it's on the tip of my tongue").

Tips of the tongue (TOTs) do indeed increase with age, and this increase is evident as early as the mid-thirties. There are other differences however, in the TOT experiences as people age. For example, older adults are much more likely to "go blank" than either young or mid-age (35-45) adults. That is, younger adults are more likely to be able to retrieve some information about the target word.

At all ages, the most common type of word involved in TOTs is proper names. But while forgetting proper names and object names becomes more common as we get older, interestingly, abstract words are forgotten less.

The most common means of resolution at all ages is that the forgotten word simply "pops up", but as we get older, it takes longer before this happens. "Pop-ups" are relatively more common for older adults. It is suggested that this may be because they are less likely to actively attempt to retrieve the information. According to a questionnaire, older adults are more likely to simply relax and think about something else.

Burke, D.M., MacKay, D.G., Worthley, J.S. & Wade, E. (1991). On the tip of the tongue: What causes word finding failures in young and older adults. Journal of Memory and Language, 30, 542-579.

Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website

Genetic cause for word-finding disease

Primary Progressive Aphasia is a little-known form of dementia in which people lose the ability to express themselves and understand speech. People can begin to show symptoms of PPA as early as in their 40's and 50's. A new study has found has discovered a gene mutation in two unrelated families in which nearly all the siblings suffered from PPA. The mutations were not observed in the healthy siblings or in more than 200 controls.

[1164] Hutton ML, Graff-Radford NR, Mesulam MMarsel, Johnson N, Krefft TA, Gass JM, Cannon AD, Adamson JL, Bigio EH, Weintraub S, et al. Progranulin Mutations in Primary Progressive Aphasia: The PPA1 and PPA3 Families. Arch Neurol [Internet]. 2007 ;64(1):43 - 47. Available from: http://archneur.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/abstract/64/1/43


Word substitution mistakes have more to do with speech planning than with thought or attention problems

Why is it that we can look at something, know what it is and still call it by the wrong name? A new study suggests that the problem doesn’t lie in haste or a lack of attention, but rather in a fault in speech planning.

Griffin, Z.M. 2004. The eyes are right when the mouth is wrong. Psychological Science, 15 (12), 814-820.


What causes word finding failures in young and older adults