Knowing More Than One Language Helps Keep Aging Brain Healthy

Gerard LeBlond for – Your Universe Online
Researchers from the University of Edinburgh Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology have found that people who speak two or more languages have long-lasting benefits to their brain health.
As part of the Lifelong Health and Wellbeing Initiative, the study found that knowing more than one language helps brain health by slowing down cognitive decline from aging even if they acquired the second language in adulthood. It is also believed to delay dementia in older adults.
The findings of the study are published in the Annals of Neurology.
Previous research on studying the impact of learning more than one language has proven difficult. The focus is on whether individuals who learn a new language improve their cognitive functions or those who have an improved cognitive baseline have a better chance of becoming bilingual.
“Our study is the first to examine whether learning a second language impacts cognitive performance later in life while controlling for childhood intelligence,” said lead author Dr. Thomas Bak from the Centre for Cognitive Aging and Cognitive Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh. “These findings are of considerable relevance,” Bak added.
The researchers used previous data acquired from the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936, which used 835 individuals living in Edinburgh, Scotland who natively spoke English. They were given an intelligence test at the age of 11 in 1947. Between 2008 and 2010 while they were in their early 70s, they were retested. Of them, 262 had learned one or more languages — 195 learned a second language before they were 18 years of age; the other 65 participants learned the second language after they were 18. No negative effects were found in any group who were bilingual.
The results indicated that the individuals who were bilingual had significantly improved cognitive functions, especially in general intelligence and reading. It was also found that it didn’t matter when the second language was acquired, even in those who learned their second language later in life — they all had the same improved cognitive effect.
“The Lothian Birth Cohort offers a unique opportunity to study the interaction between bilingualism and cognitive aging, taking into account the cognitive abilities predating the acquisition of a second language. These findings are of considerable practical relevance. Millions of people around the world acquire their second language later in life. Our study shows that bilingualism, even when acquired in adulthood, may benefit the aging brain,” Bak concluded.
“The epidemiological study by Dr. Bak and colleagues provides an important first step in understanding the impact of learning a second language and the aging brain. This research paves the way for future causal studies of bilingualism and cognitive decline prevention,” Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, an Associate Editor for Annals of Neurology and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts said after reviewing the study.

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