The effect of aging on language learning and consolidation: a case study on Cantonese-speaking older adults

The effect of aging on language learning and consolidation: a case study on Cantonese-speaking older adults
Community Collaboration
Haven of Hope Christian Service (HOHCS)
Professor Details

Prof Zhen Qin

PhD in Linguistics

Assistant Professor
Division of HumanitiesAssociate Director of
Center for Chinese Linguistics

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The COVID-19 pandemic has raised concerns about healthy aging in older adults. “Use it or lose it” is a dilemma for human cognition throughout the lifespan. For instance, exercises and stimulation of the brain have been shown to contribute to the elderly’s mental health. Language learning, which engages an extensive brain network, is a potential safeguard to protect our brain from aging. Research suggests that bilingual experience in older adults can delay the onset and slow down the rate of cognitive decline via a protective mechanism called cognitive reserve. Good sleep after learning also helps people to consolidate and commit the new information into their memory repertoire. Age-induced changes in sleep physiology, however, may disrupt learning and retention. For example, older adults exhibit less deep sleep than the younger population. Even healthy older adults have trouble maintaining newly-learned information due to their less efficient sleep-dependent memory consolidation.

This project aims to investigate the age-related changes in language learning and its association with sleep-dependent memory consolidation. Converging evidence indicates that sleep facilitates the transfer of newly-learned languages (e.g., novel words) from fragile episodic memory to the stabilized long-term memory system. However, what remains to be seen from this research is how aging impacts this sleep-mediated memory consolidation of language learning. The primary objective is thus to study how aging influences sleep-dependent consolidation of language learning among local older adults (aged 60 or above) in Hong Kong.

A better understanding of how aging impacts language learning and its subsequent memory consolidation will inform the mechanisms underlying the age-related cognitive decline and facilitate applications of this research in elderly education. For instance, the findings of the current project will act as a stepping stone for follow-up projects that examine life-long language education as an intervention to combat age-related cognitive decline (e.g., dementia). The cross-disciplinary research aims to promote language learning and sleep hygiene as a preventive intervention to facilitate healthy aging by establishing community-based collaboration with local stakeholders.