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Hasher, L., & Zacks, R. T. (1988). Working memory, comprehension, and aging: A review and a new view. In G. H. Bower (Ed.), The Psychology of Learning and Motivation, Vol. 22 (pp. 193-225). New York: Academic Press.


A reasonable case can be made for the view that linguistic competence remains invariant across the adult life span (Light, 1988). Contrast this conclusion with one derived from the literature on aging and memory: Here age deficits of varying sizes are common (see Craik, 1983; Kausler, 1982). This is important to our general concern with discourse comprehension because there is every reason to believe that linguistic performance is constrained by memory and functioning (Clark & Clark, 1977; Just & Carpenter, 1987). Consider, for example, the performance of younger and older adults on two different task tapping knowledge of word meanings (Bowles & Poon, 1985). Younger and older adults did not differ on a task which required them to determine if each of a series of letter strings was a word. However, older adults showed poorer performance (as measured by accuracy and speed) on a task which required them to produce target words when cued with their definitions. The important difference between the two tasks appears to be greater retrieval demands made by the definition task. These results fit well with the contention that memory factors are determinants of the degree of age differences in linguistic performance.

Indeed, even the overarching objective of linguistic competence, comprehension, is constrained by performance circumstances that may well be memory based: understanding and remembering are substantially impaired for older adults are compared to younger adults when a message is presented rapidly rather than slowly (e.g., Stine, Wingfield, & Poon, 1986) or when it contains syntactic structures that put heavy as compared to light demands on working memory (e.g., left-branching clauses vs. right-branching clauses; Kemper, 1988).

We begin this article with an overview of the theoretical and empirical literature that address aging and discourse comprehension. We then present a series of five studies which were guided by a particular working memory viewpoint regarding the formation of inferences during discourse processing. The data, although in broad agreement with our initial framework, suggested than an altered viewpoint might be more useful in guiding further research. In the next section we turn to a critique of working memory models and of the broader category of limited capacity models that they exemplify. Our data, together with these criticisms, lead up to propose, in the final section, a new framework for conceptualizing working memory, one that draws on ideas from current parallel-architecture attention theories, from social cognition, from classic interference theory of forgetting, from work on reading and discourse comprehension, and from cognitive gerontology. It is a framework developed from our interest in normal aging and from our assessment that breakdowns in cognition, as occur with aging (and possibly with depression, chronic high arousal, and chronic illness), may prove to be as valuable a window into normal cognitive functioning as breakdowns in amnesia and aphasia are currently proving to be (e.g., Squire, 1987).

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