Vocabulary changes in adulthood: Main findings and methodological considerations

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


BACKGROUND: Vocabulary scores increase until approximately age 65 years and then remain stable or decrease slightly, unlike scores on tests of other cognitive abilities that decline significantly with age.

AIMS: To review the findings on ageing-related changes in vocabulary, and to discuss four methodological issues: research design; test type; measurement; and vocabulary ability as a proxy for general intelligence.

MAIN CONTRIBUTION: A discussion of cross-sectional and longitudinal research designs shows that cohort membership accounts for some but not all ageing-related changes in vocabulary, and that drop-out and test-retest effects do not alter conclusions regarding these changes. Test type affects age trends in vocabulary, and if researchers use only one test, they should choose a multiple-choice synonym test. While some authors suggest that vocabulary tests do not measure the same underlying ability in younger and older adults, more research of this suggestion is needed. A brief examination of the use of vocabulary ability as a proxy for general intelligence in healthy ageing and for premorbid abilities in dementia indicates that such practice is often questionable.

CONCLUSIONS: Vocabulary knowledge increases through the mid-60s regardless of measurement method. However, there is little information on how word knowledge serves other verbal skills in old age, how and when adults learn new words, or how much exposure is necessary for meanings to remain in storage for a lifetime. Research of these issues may require new methodologies, as well as novel theoretical accounts of ageing-related effects on vocabulary.

WHAT THIS PAPER ADDS: What is already known on this subject Unlike many cognitive abilities that decline with ageing, vocabulary knowledge continues to increase until approximately age 65, and then remains stable or decreases slightly. These findings have been replicated in different research designs and across languages. What this paper adds to existing knowledge The article presents a summary of findings on changes in vocabulary across adulthood, and a discussion of four key methodological issues: research design, test type, measurement, and the use of vocabulary ability as a proxy for general intelligence. What are the potential or actual clinical implications of this work? To better understand changes in vocabulary knowledge across adulthood, clinicians must be aware of methodological considerations that affect the field. Such considerations have direct clinical implications regarding the choice of vocabulary tests and their use as a proxy for other abilities in both healthy older adults and in individuals with dementia.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)58-67
Number of pages10
JournalInternational Journal of Language and Communication Disorders
Issue number1
StateE-pub ahead of print - 2022

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 The Authors. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists.


  • ageing
  • language
  • older adults
  • vocabulary testing
  • word knowledge


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