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Iconic Sign Comprehension in Older Adults: The Role of Cognitive Impairment and Text Enhancement*

  • Charles Scialfa (a1), Pat Spadafora (a2), Marianne Klein (a2), Agata Lesnik (a2), Lindsay Dial (a1) and Antje Heinrich (a3)...


Sign comprehension is critical for effective driving, responses to warnings, and way-finding. Signs that are poorly comprehended by older people increase accident risk and may compromise independence. This study sought to determine whether iconic sign comprehension suffers in healthy aging and in the presence of cognitive impairment. Additionally, we examined whether the addition of text to iconic signage would increase comprehension in older adults. In Experiment 1, young adults, healthy older adults, and older adults with varying levels of cognitive impairment were asked the meaning of 65 signs used for driving, warnings, and way-finding. Healthy older adults were generally good at sign comprehension but had difficulty with way-finding signs. Older adults with cognitive impairment had poorer sign comprehension overall and particular difficulty with way-finding icons and signs that had icons only. In Experiment 2, healthy older adults were asked the meaning of signs containing icons only, or icons and text. A significant improvement in comprehension was found when text was added. An important implication of this work is that the assessment of sign comprehension needs to involve a broad and heterogeneous sample of older adults reflecting the range of perceptual and cognitive abilities represented in the population.

Bien comprendre les panneaux de signalisation est critique pour bien conduire aun véhicule, réagir aux avertissements, et s'orienter. Les aînés qui comprennent mal un panneau routier risquent davantage de subir un accident et de voir leur indépendance compromise. La présente étude visait à déterminer le degré de compréhension des pictogrammes par des aînés en bonne santé et des aînés souffrant de déficience. De plus, nous nous sommes demandé si l'ajout de texte aux pictogrammes permettrait aux aînés de les mieux comprendre. Lors de l'Expérience 1, nous avons demandé à des jeunes adultes, à des adultes plus âgés en bonne santé et aussi à des aînés souffrant de déficience cognitive à divers degrés, la signification de 65 panneaux routiers visant la conduite, les avertissements, et l'orientation. Les adultes plus âgés en bonne santé comprenaient bien la signalisation en général, mais avaient de la difficulté à déterminer ce que signifiait le panneau d'orientation. Les aînés souffrant de déficience cognitive comprenaient en général moins bien les panneaux routiers et en particulier les icônes d'orientation et les panneaux avec seulement un pictogramme. Au cours de l'Expérience 2, nous avons demandé à des aînés en bonne santé la signification de panneaux comportant seulement des icônes ou des icônes avec du texte. La compréhension était améliorée de façon importante lorsque le panneau comportait du texte. Ce travail a démontré que l'évaluation de la compréhension des panneaux de signalisation doit porter sur un vaste échantillon hétérogène d'adultes plus âgés dans l'échelle de capacités perceptuelles et cognitives représentées dans la population.


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Requests for offprints should be sent to:/Les demandes de tirés-à-part doivent être adressées à: C.T. Scialfa, Department of Psychology, University of Calgary, Calgary, AB T2N 1N4, (


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This work was supported by grants from the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the University of Calgary and by a Canadian Institutes for Health Research Strategic Training Grant on Communication and Social Interaction in Healthy Aging. Experiment 2 was completed in partial fulfillment of the degree requirements for Lindsay Dial.



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Canadian Journal on Aging / La Revue canadienne du vieillissement
  • ISSN: 0714-9808
  • EISSN: 1710-1107
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