Adult Age Differences in the Use of Conceptual Combination as an Associative Encoding Strategy

Heather D. Lucas, Department of Psychology, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA, United States.
Resh S. Gupta, Vanderbilt Brain Institute, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN, United States.
Ryan J. Hubbard, Department of Psychology and Beckman Institute, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, IL, United States.
Kara D. Federmeier, Department of Psychology and Beckman Institute, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, IL, United States.


It is well-established that aging impairs memory for associations more than it does memory for single items. Aging also impacts processes involved in online language comprehension, including the ability to form integrated, message-level representations. These changes in comprehension processes could impact older adults' associative memory performance, perhaps by reducing or altering the effectiveness of encoding strategies that encourage semantic integration. The present study examined age differences in the use of a strategy termed conceptual combination, which involves integrating two words (e.g., "winter" and "salad") into a single concept ("a salad for winter"). We recorded ERPs while participants studied unrelated noun pairs using a strategy that either did or did not encourage conceptual combination. We also varied the concreteness of the first noun in each pair in order to measure compositional concreteness effects, or ERP differences at the second noun due to the concreteness of the first noun. At the first nouns, older adults showed word-level concreteness effects that were similar to those of younger adults. However, compositional concreteness effects were diminished in older adults, consistent with reduced semantic integration. Older adults' associative memory performance was better for word pairs studied during the conceptual combination task versus the non-combinatory encoding task; however, the magnitude of the age-related associative memory deficit did not differ between tasks. Finally, analyses of both memory accuracy and trial-by-trial ratings of perceived combination success suggested that older adults had disproportionate difficulty applying the conceptual combination strategy to word pairs that began with abstract nouns. Overall, these results indicate that changes to integrative language processing that occur with age are not independent of - and may sometimes exacerbate - age-related memory decline.