What causes word finding failures in young and older adults

  • Failing to immediately retrieve well-known information does become more common with age.
  • An increase in "tips of the tongue" is evident as early as the mid-thirties.
  • The increase in memory failures applies to names of people and things; abstract words do not get harder to recall.
  • The length of time before the missing word is recalled also increases with age.
  • Older people tend to be less likely than younger people to actively pursue a missing word.

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.