To assess the effects of normal aging and senile dementia of the Alzheimer's type (SDAT) on semantic analysis of words, we examined the N400 component of the event-related potential (ERP) elicited during the processing of highly constrained (opposites) and less constrained materials (category-category exemplars) in 12 young control subjects, 12 elderly control subjects and 12 patients with SDAT. We employed a priming paradigm in which a context phrase was spoken and a target word (congruent or incongruent) was presented visually. The N400 effect was reduced in amplitude and delayed in the elderly control group relative to that of the younger subjects, and was further attenuated in amplitude, delayed in latency and somewhat flatter in its distribution across the scalp in the SDAT patients. These findings are consistent with less efficient processing and integration of lexical items with semantic context in normal aging, which is further exacerbated by SDAT. Differences in the N400 range associated with the opposite and category conditions were observed only in the young subjects, suggesting less use of controlled attentional resources or perhaps weaker associative links with age.