Establishing a role for the visual complexity of lingustic stimuli in age-related reading difficulty: Evidence from eye movements during Chinese reading

Older adults experience greater difficulty compared to young adults during both alphabetic and non-alphabetic reading. However, while this age-related reading difficulty may be attributable to visual and cognitive declines in older adulthood, the underlying causes remain unclear. With the present research, we focused on effects related to the visual complexity of written language. Chinese is ideally-suited to investigating such effects, as characters in this logographic writing system can vary substantially in complexity (in terms of number of strokes, i.e., lines and dashes) while always occupying the same square area of space, so that this complexity is not confounded with word length. Non-reading studies suggests older adults have greater difficulty than young adults when recognizing characters with high compared to low numbers of strokes. The present research used measures of eye movements to investigate adult age differences in these effects during natural reading. Young adult (18-28 years) and older adult (65+ years) participants read sentences that included one of a pair of two-character target words matched for lexical frequency and contextual predictability but composed of either high-complexity (>9 strokes) or low-complexity (<=7 strokes) characters. Typical patterns of age-related reading difficulty were observed. However, an effect of visual complexity in reading times for words was greater for the older than younger adults, due to the older readers experiencing greater difficulty identifying words containing many rather than few strokes. We interpret these findings in terms of the influence of subtle deficits in visual abilities on reading capabilties in older adulthood.

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