Anyone who’s ever tried learning a new language can attest to the difficulty of memorizing everything. Past tense, future tense, subjunctive, and conjugations — the list can go on and on. But all the extra brainpower it takes to learn this new language may end up benefiting you in the long run. According to a new study, published in the Annals of Neurology, finds that people who know two languages are able to hamper cognitive decline as they age.
“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, of the Centre for Cognitive Aging and Cognitive Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, in a press release. Childhood intelligence is important because previous studies, which found links between the delayed onset of dementia and being bilingual, were unable to distinguish whether learning a second language improved cognitive function or people who already had above-average brain function were more inclined to learn a second language.
A study from last November had similar results to Bak’s study, showing that being bilingual, even without being able to read, reduced a person’s chance of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. The scientists speculated that the delay was due to a so-called cognitive reserve; in which areas of the brain associated with executive function and attention were better developed thanks to knowing a second language. Another study found that singing songs from musicals, such as those from The Sound of Music, also brought back some function in patients who already had dementia. When it comes down to it, any form of mental stimulation may be better than none, especially in old age.
For Bak’s study, the team of researchers looked at data from the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936, which consisted of 835 native English speakers born in 1936. At 11 years old, they all underwent an intelligence test, and were then retested when they were in their early 70s. At that point, 262 participants reported being able to speak at least one other language — 195 of them learned before they turned 18.
People who were able to speak more than one language scored significantly better in cognitive tasks compared to those who only spoke one language, with the biggest advantage seen in general intelligence and reading. “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,” Bak said in the release. “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.”
Source: Bak T, Nissan J, Allerhand M, Deary I. Does Bilingualism Influence Cognitive Aging? Annals of Neurology. 2014.