Context Effects on Sublexical Processing in Older and Younger Neurologically Typical Adults



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Past research has found that at the single word level, intact sublexical phonological processing is obligatory to access lexical-semantic representations when stimuli are closely matched in perceptual discriminability. Moreover, a variety of studies have demonstrated that processing may be influenced by contextual factors such as real word/non-word status, and sentence context. Older adults are susceptible to biased perception at the single word level, while younger adults are not, but sentence level context effects as a function of age have yet to be examined. This study examined processing differences between older and younger adults in sentence contexts via sentence frames that were semantically biased toward one word of a minimal pair by measuring participant response times. Participants listened to biased sentences, then a word appeared on a screen that did or did not match the final word of the sentence. Participants had to select if the words matched or did not match. Older adults exhibited longer response times than younger adults, specifically in sentences with semantically incongruent audio. Younger adults were less sensitive to semantic context bias, with faster response times than older adults across sentence conditions. Younger adults were more influenced by the matching/non-matching status of words, rather than incongruent sentence audio. We suspect cognitive changes associated with typical healthy aging are responsible for the differences observed between age groups. While younger adults leveraged increased cognitive control such as fluid intelligence, increased attention, increased response inhibition, and reliance on the acoustic signal to support rapid processing of stimuli, older adults were more reliant on crystallized intelligence and world knowledge. This resulted in older adults having longer response times overall, particularly in incongruent sentence contexts. These differences relate to known cognitive changes that occur in typical healthy aging, such as decreased attention and decreased response inhibition. The findings of this study and future studies using the same tasks with individuals with aphasia have implications for how semantic context may be manipulated to influence or support sublexical phonological processing in people with aphasia. The current study may provide evidence for the development of new assessments or treatments for auditory comprehension deficits.



Sublexical processing, Age effect, Context effect, Language processing, Neurologically typical, Sentence context, Context bias, Cognitive aging, Aphasia