If you’ve squandered your new year’s resolution to learn a new language, here’s your sign to not give up. New research suggests that a bilingual brain can delay an aging brain. Knowing more than one language could help in lowering the number of dementia and neurodegenerative diseases that increase with age.
While you might notice sagging skin or wrinkles as the first signs of aging, your human brain goes through anatomical changes in the gray and white matter of multiple brain regions. Known as cognitive aging, the brain has trouble processing new information and creating short-term and episodic memory, as well as visuospatial function.
The bad news is that no one can stop the aging process. That said, the speed at which your brain ages depends on a person’s cognitive reserve — the brain’s ability to cope with age-related brain damage while maintaining optimal performance. The cognitive reserve doesn’t happen overnight, it grows throughout a person’s life when neural networks are strong. Cognitive reserve is influenced by a person’s fitness level, diet, leisure activities, education level, and socioeconomic status among others.
The current study sought to find how important bilingualism is to the cognitive reserve. Researchers studied the cognition of 63 adults 60 years or older with no psychiatric or neurodegenerative problems. Each person could partially understand a second language even if they were not fluent. Researchers distributed a questionnaire on their level of education, social relationship, and more to gauge their cognitive reserve levels. They also filled out how long they knew a second language and how often they used it in everyday life.
After the questionnaire, each participant was given a “flanker task” to measure their inhibitory executive control. They were shown a row of five arrows with the target or central arrow being the key stimulus. The arrows on either side of the central arrow would point in the same or opposite directions. In some cases, they were replaced by other objects.
Target and side arrows in different directions is considered a more difficult task and take more time to concentrate on the answer. However, people who were bilingual and fluent had a better performance in the experiment than those who were not fluent. Language skills appeared to play a larger role than the time to learn a second language.
“‘Unlike other factors that shape cognitive reserve, bilingualism is unique in that it is constantly present in our lives. We can take up and give up physical exercise, go on one diet or another, or change jobs, but language remains with us all the time. We communicate, watch movies, and read books, and the language centers are constantly working in our mind. We witnessed an interesting phenomenon in this experiment: with a high level of language proficiency, the correlation between successful conflict resolution and other components of cognitive reserve disappeared. This suggests that bilingualism’s benefits on cognitive reserve might be stronger than those of other known factors,” says Federico Gallo, Junior Research Fellow at the HSE University Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience.
The team suggests people perform better in cognitive tasks because they face similar conflicts in daily life from switching between two languages.
In a separate study by Gallo and his team, he suggests that people who are actively bilingual delay the formation of neurodegenerative diseases by 5 to 7 years compared to people who only speak one language.
“There are no really effective drugs available today to prevent or slow down brain aging. It takes enormous financial resources to develop pharmaceutical treatments. Therefore, finding and researching alternative, non-drug ways to slow down cognitive aging should become a priority in science. In the long term, we plan to study how the benefits of bilingualism on aging may vary with different language pairs,” says Gallo.
The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.