Speaking two languages benefits the aging brain

June 2, 2014
Credit: Rice University

New research reveals that bilingualism has a positive effect on cognition later in life. Findings published in Annals of Neurology, a journal of the American Neurological Association and Child Neurology Society, show that individuals who speak two or more languages, even those who acquired the second language in adulthood, may slow down cognitive decline from aging.

Bilingualism is thought to improve cognition and delay dementia in older adults. While prior research has investigated the impact of learning more than one , ruling out "reverse causality" has proven difficult. The crucial question is whether people improve their cognitive functions through learning new languages or whether those with better baseline cognitive functions are more likely to become bilingual.

"Our study is the first to examine whether learning a second language impacts later in life while controlling for childhood intelligence," says lead author Dr. Thomas Bak from the Centre for Cognitive Aging and Cognitive Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh.

For the current study, researchers relied on data from the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936, comprised of 835 native speakers of English who were born and living in the area of Edinburgh, Scotland. The participants were given an intelligence test in 1947 at age 11 years and retested in their early 70s, between 2008 and 2010. Two hundred and sixty two participants reported to be able to communicate in at least one language other than English. Of those, 195 learned the second language before age 18, 65 thereafter.

Findings indicate that those who spoke two or more languages had significantly better cognitive abilities compared to what would be expected from their baseline. The strongest effects were seen in general intelligence and reading. The effects were present in those who acquired their second language early as well as late.

The Lothian Birth Cohort 1936 forms the Disconnected Mind project at the University of Edinburgh, funded by Age UK. The work was undertaken by The University of Edinburgh Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology, part of the cross council Lifelong Health and Wellbeing Initiative (MR/K026992/1) and has been made possible thanks to funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and Medical Research Council (MRC).

"The Lothian Birth Cohort offers a unique opportunity to study the interaction between bilingualism and cognitive aging, taking into account the predating the acquisition of a second language" concludes Dr. Bak. "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."

After reviewing the study, Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, an Associate Editor for Annals of Neurology and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Mass. said, "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 and prevention."

Explore further: Should parents raise kids bilingually?

More information: "Does Bilingualism Influence Cognitive Aging?" Thomas H Bak, Jack J Nissan, Michael M Allerhand and Ian J Deary. Annals of Neurology; Published Online: June 2, 2014 DOI: 10.1002/ana.24158

Related Stories

Should parents raise kids bilingually?

March 31, 2014
As one in four Australians is now born outside of Australia, many children are growing up with other languages spoken at home. Should parents speak to their child in their first language, or attempt to speak to them in English?

Speaking a second language may delay dementia, study shows

November 6, 2013
People who speak more than one language and who develop dementia tend to do so up to five years later than those who are monolingual, according to a study.

Being bilingual wards off symptoms of dementia

March 29, 2012
New research explains how speaking more than one language may translate to better mental health. A paper published by Cell Press in the March 29th issue of the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences examines how being bilingual ...

Early exposure to language for deaf children

June 5, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- Most agree that the earlier you expose a child to a language, the easier it is for that child to pick it up. The same rules apply for deaf children.

Learning a new language alters brain development

August 29, 2013
The age at which children learn a second language can have a significant bearing on the structure of their adult brain, according to a new joint study by the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital - The Neuro at McGill ...

Study shows cognitive benefit of lifelong bilingualism

January 8, 2013
Seniors who have spoken two languages since childhood are faster than single-language speakers at switching from one task to another, according to a study published in the January 9 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience. ...

Recommended for you

Faulty support cells disrupt communication in brains of people with schizophrenia

July 20, 2017
New research has identified the culprit behind the wiring problems in the brains of people with schizophrenia. When researchers transplanted human brain cells generated from individuals diagnosed with childhood-onset schizophrenia ...

Scientists discover combined sensory map for heat, humidity in fly brain

July 20, 2017
Northwestern University neuroscientists now can visualize how fruit flies sense and process humidity and temperature together through a "sensory map" within their brains, according to new research.

Scientists reveal how patterns of brain activity direct specific body movements

July 20, 2017
New research by Columbia scientists offers fresh insight into how the brain tells the body to move, from simple behaviors like walking, to trained movements that may take years to master. The discovery in mice advances knowledge ...

Team traces masculinization in mice to estrogen receptor in inhibitory neurons

July 20, 2017
Researchers at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) have opened a black box in the brain whose contents explain one of the remarkable yet mysterious facts of life.

Speech language therapy delivered through the Internet leads to similar improvements as in-person treatment

July 20, 2017
Telerehabilitation helps healthcare professionals reach more patients in need, but some worry it doesn't offer the same quality of care as in-person treatment. This isn't the case, according to recent research by Baycrest.

New study reveals contrasts in how groups of neurons function during decision making

July 19, 2017
By training mice to perform a sound identification task in a virtual reality maze, researchers at Harvard Medical School and the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT) have identified striking contrasts in how groups of neurons ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

carlyt
not rated yet Jun 02, 2014
Part of staying healthy as you age is staying mentally sharp by exercising your brain. I just read several posts and pages on the site Retirement And Good Living about staying mentally sharp. The site also has several games to help and information on health, aging, fitness and nutrition.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.