Study Says Benefits Of Bilingualism For Aging Adults Includes Cognitive Flexibility

Connie K. Ho for — Your Universe Online

A recent study by researchers at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine (UKCM) found that aging adults who grew up bilingual are able to maintain better “cognitive flexibility” and more efficient use of their brains than their monolingual peers.
The study, recently featured in The Journal of Neuroscience, looked at seniors who have practiced speaking two languages since childhood. The bilingual speakers were able to switch more quickly from one task to another compared to their peers who only spoke one language. The study also discovered that lifelong bilinguals have different patterns of brain activity than their monolingual counterparts when switching from tasks.
“This study provides some of the first evidence of an association between a particular cognitively stimulating activity – in this case, speaking multiple languages on a daily basis – and brain function,” commented John Woodard, a researcher on aging at Wayne State University who was not affiliated with the study. “The authors provide clear evidence of a different pattern of neural functioning in bilingual versus monolingual individuals.”
In the paper, the researchers defined cognitive flexibility as the ability to respond to circumstances that are unfamiliar or unexpected. The researchers utilized functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look at the brain activity of healthy bilingual seniors and then compared it with the brain activity of healthy monolingual seniors during a test-taking activity. The participants, all of whom were between the ages of 60 and 68, completed the task at different rates, and the scientists observed that the bilingual seniors were able to finish the task considerable more quickly than the monolingual seniors. Additionally, the fMRI images showed that the frontal cortex of the bilingual participants utilized less energy.
The team of investigators also tested the brain activity of younger monolingual and bilingual adults, who were also given a cognitive flexibility task to complete. As expected, the results showed that the younger adults finished the task faster than the seniors. However, between the two groups of young adults, the bilingualism did not appear to provide any cognitive additional benefit as it did in the elderly participants.
Based on the findings, the scientists propose the benefit of practicing regular stimulating mental activities for increasing cognitive flexibility in the long term.
“This suggests that bilingual seniors use their brains more efficiently than monolingual seniors,” noted Brian Gold, a researcher at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine. “Together, these results suggest that lifelong bilingualism may exert its strongest benefits on the functioning of frontal brain regions in aging.”
Furthermore, other studies have showed the impact of bilingualism in younger children. In particular, in a 2012 study, a team of investigators at the University of Luxembourg looked at the impact of bilingualism on the brain´s executive functioning for children from low-income families. They discovered that the bilingual children were better able to perform tasks that related to directing and focusing attention.
“This is the first study to show that, although they may face linguistic challenges, minority bilingual children from low-income families demonstrate important strengths in other cognitive domains. “¦ our study suggests that intervention programs that are based on second language teaching are a fruitful avenue for future research,” said Pascale Engel de Abreu, a researcher at the University of Luxembourg.
“Teaching a foreign language does not involve costly equipment, it widens children´s linguistic and cultural horizons, and it fosters the healthy development of executive control.”

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