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Why older people struggle to read fine print – study

Older adults rely more on holistic cues, such as word shape, when reading.

Image: Monkey Business Images via Shutterstock

AS WE AGE, many of us develop problems reading small text – a problem that a new study by the University of Leicester says is down to our eye-movements while reading changing over time.

Psychologists at the university carried out unique eye tests to examine reading styles in young and old people, and discovered for the first time that the way we read words changes as we grow older.

The team used a method of digitally manipulating text combined with precise measures of readers’ eye movements, which they said provided novel insights into how young and older adults use different visual cues during reading.

Using very precise measures of readers’ eye movements, researchers assessed how well subjects read lines of text that had been digitally manipulated to enhance the salience of different visual information – for eg sometimes the text was blurred and other times the features of the individual letters were sharply defined.

Young adults (18-30 years) found it easiest to read lines of text when the fine visual detail was present, while older adults (65+years), found it easier to read more blurred text. These findings support the view that older adults use a different reading strategy from younger adults and that they rely more than young adults on holistic cues to the identities of words – such as word shape.

“The findings showed that the difficulty older readers often experience is likely to be related to a progressive decline in visual sensitivity, particularly for visual detail, due to optical changes and changes in neural transmission even in individuals with apparently normal vision,” said Dr Kevin Paterson.

“However, the findings also showed that older readers comprehended text just as accurately as younger readers. Consequently, although normal ageing clearly leads to important changes in reading behaviour, it seems that adaptive responses to the changing nature of the visual input may help older adults to read and understand text efficiently well into later life.”

As we age, Patterson said, we lose visual sensitivity – particularly to fine visual detail – due to changes in the eye and changes in neural transmission. This loss of visual sensitivity is even found in people with normal vision and is not corrected by optical aids like as glasses or contact lenses.

“The ability to read effectively is fundamental to participation in modern society, and the challenge age-related visual impairment presents to meeting everyday demands of living, working and citizenship is a matter of concern. The difficulty older adults have in reading is an important contributing factor to social exclusion,” he added.

The results of the study have been published in the journal Psychology and Ageing.

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