Having difficulty finding the right word?

It is not unusual to have difficulty finding the right word during a conversation. This “tip-of-the-tongue” phenomenon may occur more often as we age. But no need to worry, if it happens occasionally, it is part of normal aging, and fortunately there are ways to keep language skills alive and in good shape.

“What happens as we age is that most of us get slower and that reduced speed affects our ability to retrieve words as quickly and efficiently as we used to,” explains Dr. Regina Jokel, Baycrest researcher and speech language pathologist.

“Gradually you notice that you need to pause and think — you have the word on the tip of your tongue. You know exactly what you want to say and you know which word you want to use but you just cannot recall it. It feels as though your mind is unable to form that word.”

The elusive word “may come in a couple of minutes or a couple of hours and that’s normal aging,” adds Dr. Jokel. “It’s when the words never come, you can’t retrieve any nouns or if the forgetfulness happens every minute in a conversation, then it’s a worry.”

The speed of retrieval of words and the speed at which we speak tend to slow down as we age. Changes in our memory and retrieval process affect our word-finding abilities and language production. Our decreased ability to filter out background information may affect comprehension, and our senses, such as hearing and vision, may not be as sharp, also affecting our comprehension.

With age comes wisdom

But the good news is that our competency does not change. We are just as good at communicating what we want to say and understanding what is said to us.

“This means that when it comes to quality there really isn’t that much change,” notes Jokel. “The changes are quantitative not qualitative. Other than that, in normal aging you are just as competent as before.”

Our vocabulary actually expands as we age. We gain more words and have a broader vocabulary than people in their 20s and 30s.

Wisdom isn’t related to language skills specifically, but to knowledge in general. Wisdom is our ability to use the resources that we have gained through life.

Strategies and tips

To make up for lost words, people often intuitively use strategies such as:

  • Fillers. These are words or sounds that we use to keep a conversation flowing. They allow us to pause and retrieve the word. Things like: “uhm,” “what do you call it?,” “you know what I mean,” are considered fillers.
  • Non-specific words. Occasionally substituting general terms such as “this” or “that” for a noun we are having difficulty retrieving allows us to continue the conversation.

Tips for maintaining language skills:

  • Stay socially active because it encourages conversation.
  • Practice reading and writing to keep your vocabulary growing and exercises your cognitive skills for using language.
  • Do crossword puzzles which are good for practicing word retrieval.
  • Have your hearing and vision tested. Hearing loss can prevent you from taking part in conversations and reduced vision can affect your ability to read.
  • Participate in physical exercise because it will help you maintain your cognitive skills which in turn will benefit your language abilities. Get adequate sleep.

Things to watch for:

  • Are your language use and word retrieval just slowing down or are they becoming abnormal? When caught early there are strategies or interventions that people can maintain their language skills for longer.
  • Is someone regularly using substitute words instead of the correct ones? This can be common as we age, especially in those who are sleep deprived, under stress or sick. If the person doesn’t realize their errors, it may be a cause for concern.
  • Is a person confusing sounds such as saying “fable” instead of “table”?. If it happens often, that may be reason for concern. If you are concerned, speak to your family doctor.

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