Non-literal language deficits in mild cognitive impairment

Sandra Cardoso, Dina Silva, João Maroco, Alexandre de Mendonça*, Manuela Guerreiro

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Verbal language deteriorates in Alzheimer's disease, contributing to dramatic disturbances in the ability to communicate. The presence of language disturbances may be detected at earlier phases of the neurodegenerative process, like mild cognitive impairment (MCI). In daily verbal interactions, people mostly use literal language, but sometimes they employ non-literal language, which requires listeners to interpret messages beyond the plain meaning of the words and can be quite demanding. In the present study, we tested the hypotheses that patients with MCI may have deficits in non-literal language, and these deficits are more pronounced than deficits in literal language. Methods: Participants were recruited in a private memory clinic and senior universities. General cognitive evaluation included a comprehensive neuropsychological battery, the Mini-Mental State Examination, and the instrumental activities of daily living scale. Literal language was assessed with the semantic decision test, Token Test, and literal text comprehension test, and non-literal language with the proverbs comprehension, idiomatic expressions and non-literal text comprehension tests. Results: Fifty-two participants with MCI and 31 controls were recruited. Patients with MCI had lower scores in all complex language tests, both literal (Token Test, semantic decision and literal text) and non-literal (proverbs, idiomatic expressions, and non-literal text), than the controls; the difference in literal text score was marginally significant. As much as 69% of MCI participants had deficits (performance below 1.5 SD of the mean) on at least one of the complex language tasks. Deficits were more frequent on the proverbs comprehension and semantic decision tests, and the deficits on these tests did not significantly differ from that on the Token Test. Conclusion: Patients with MCI are hindered in understanding complex language, both literal and non-literal. In daily living, these complex language deficits could compromise effective verbal interactions with the others. Amelioration of these deficits should be an important intervention target as part of a comprehensive rehabilitation strategy for patients with cognitive decline.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)222-228
Number of pages7
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2014


  • Idiomatic expressions
  • Literal language
  • Mild cognitive impairment
  • Non-literal language
  • Proverbs
  • Text comprehension


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