Word finding difficulty s is common among many adults. It is also called tip-of-the-tongue word loss, and the medical term is anomic aphasia. Is it linked to cognitive loss, dementia or Alzheimer’s? We’ll discuss this, along with research finding that aerobic exercise decreases the incidence of word finding difficulty.
Before we get into that, let’s answer the important question on whether word loss is related to dementia, Alzheimer’s or other forms of cognitive decline. Then we’ll discuss some of the other therapies that have been studied for this disorder, including exercise.
While many adults will say that as they get older they are losing more tip-of-the-tongue words, people of all ages report this problem. Children often report this problem, in fact.
However, the conclusion of the science is that word-finding problems are not linked with increased risk of dementia. For example, a 2013 study from France’s Paul-Sabatier University followed 1,838 people who were 65 years or older for 13 years. They found that concerns about retrieving names bothered 64 percent of the people. Yet they also found that such a problem or complaint about retrieving names was not associated with an increased risk of dementia.
The scientists wrote:
“This study emphasizes the importance of proper name retrieval complaint in the general population and suggests that elderly subjects can be reassured in the absence of other symptoms.”
Other studies have concluded similar findings. Dr Katrien Segaert, a School of Psychology professor at the UK’s University of Birmingham’s put it this way:
“Older adults sometimes worry that tip-of-the-tongue states indicate serious memory problems but this is a misconception: tip-of-the-tongue states are not associated with memory loss. In fact, older adults usually have a much larger vocabulary than young adults. Instead, tip-of-the-tongue states occur when the meaning of a word is available in our memory, but the sound form of the word can temporarily not be accessed, she stated in a 2018 interview. “Accessing the sound forms of words is essential for successful and fluent language production, and its disruption has very noticeable negative consequences for older adults.”
In other words, the association between word finding and age is there, but this is more related to the fact that as we age we learn more and more words. This places a greater burden on our mind to retrieve more words. This is not a dementia issue: It is a language-bearing issue.
Phonology and semantic therapies
This last point by Dr. Segaert suggests the difficulty with regard to bringing up sounds, along with connecting sounds and pictures in the mind and brain. This has served as a crux for some of the research on finding therapies for word-finding issues.
Semantic priming is a technique that utilizes comparative subjects in order to induce word finding. For example, if we can associate one word with another. For example, one might associate a can with a mouse. If a person is trying to remember the word describing a mouse, they might consider the cat first, which will remind them of the word mouse.
Putting this into a phonology context means we are discussing linguistics. The ability to form a sound that describes an object. Remembering sounds is the key to finding words. We might remember, for example, how the word parrot reminds us of ‘parroting’ something. This can associate the sound with the idea.
Using what is called a semantic feature or a phonological cue is basically connecting a sound with a picture or idea or another word. A number of studies have shown these types of semantic and phonology techniques to be successful over the years.
The other more common description of this is word association. Associating a name or word with a picture or a thought or idea can help us retrieve this word later. This often works well for remembering names. We can, for example, think of a carrot when we meet a red-headed guy. Say his name is Ted. We might say to ourselves something like, ‘Red-head Ted’ in order to remember his name. Then whenever we see him, we’ll remember this association between the two words, ‘Ted’ and ‘red.’
Aerobic exercise and word loss
A 2018 study from the University of Birmingham investigated word finding issues and exercise. They compared 28 healthy adults with word-loss problems in their 60s and 70s with 27 younger 67 and 70s to adults in their 20s.
They did ‘definition filling’ on a computer, being asked to name famous people in the UK to test their word recall rates. They were also asked to recall other words that relate to definitions.
The researchers also tested them for their aerobic fitness and their use of oxygen during exercise to establish their rate of exercising.
The researchers found that those who had more aerobic fitness had less word finding loss. Their tip-of-the-tongue word abilities were better than those who exercised less. This association was true regardless of the age of the person.
Lead author Dr Katrien Segaert said, “Significantly, what we found was that the degree of decline is related to one’s aerobic fitness. Importantly, our results also showed that the relationship between the frequency of tip-of-the-tongue occurrences and aerobic fitness levels exists over and above the influence of a person’s age and vocabulary size.”
Exercise for better brain function
The bottom line is that while word association techniques will help us remember words better, exercise will keep our brains in better shape. This allows us to utilize our brain’s capacity in a more efficient way, regardless of whether we are utilizing semantic and phonology techniques.
Dr. Segaert described that this study only adds to previous research findings concluding the benefits of exercise:
“There are a lot of findings already on the benefits of aerobic fitness and regular exercise, and our research demonstrates another side of the benefits, namely a relationship between fitness and language skills. We were able to show, for the first time, that the benefits of aerobic fitness extend to the domain of language.”
The researchers stated clearly some of the relationship between exercise and brain processing:
“Regular physical exercise and the resultant higher aerobic fitness is associated with reducing age-related decline in brain perfusion and structural integrity. Among others, structural integrity in frontal and temporal regions of the brain has been related to aerobic fitness.”
Remember that aerobic exercise is different than simply walking or doing some yoga stretches. We’re talking about getting the heart rate up and breathing deeply – being somewhat out of breath. This is the state at the edge of oxygen debt. Scientific research has linked regular aerobic exercise to many other health benefits. These include increased lifespan, better hearing, reduction in migraines among others.
Case Adams is a California Naturopath and a Board Certified Alternative Medicine Practitioner with a PhD in Natural Health Sciences, and diplomas in Homeopathy, Aromatherapy, Bach Flower Remedies, Blood Chemistry, Clinical Nutritional Counseling and Colon Hydrotherapy. He has authored 26 books on natural healing strategies.