Bilingual seniors retain quicker mental skills, stave off dementia

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bilingual senior

Seniors who spoke multiple languages were shown to retain cognitive function for longer periods of time (Shutterstock photo)

Seniors between the ages of 60 and 68 who had spoken two languages for the majority of their lives were faster at switching from one mental task to another compared to monolingual seniors, according to a new study published in the January issue of the Journal of Neuroscience. The findings complement information gathered by an earlier study from Stanford University indicating bilingual immigrants have better overall health.

“What we found out is we need to do more to find what drives this,” Ariela Schachter, a sociology Ph.D student who headed up the Stanford University research, said at the time. Like the 2013 study, Schachter was able to show being bilingual enabled faster mental task switching, a process which utilizes complex pathways within the brain.

Now, the mental benefit of being bilingual has been applied to the senior population, and Brian Gold, of the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, said in a news release from the Journal, “…These results suggest that lifelong bilingualism may exert its strongest benefits on the functioning of frontal brain regions in aging.”

Because of the way the brain must function in a bilingual individual, those who speak multiple languages may also have a decreased risk for early-onset dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

“This study provides some of the first evidence of an association between a particular cognitively [mentally] stimulating activity – in this case, speaking multiple languages on a daily basis – and brain function,” said John Woodard, an aging expert from Wayne State University in Detroit, reported HealthDay.

A report from the Guardian detailed a separate 2012 study from researchers in Ontario which also focused on bilingual individuals as they aged. Bilingual participants had what study authors considered a cognitive reserve, which allowed the mind to run smoother, longer – compared to non-bilingual people.

Bilingual seniors

Being bilingual boosts complex pathways within the brain and allows individuals to switch cognitive tasks quickly (Shutterstock photo)

“We know that this system deteriorates with age but we have found that at every stage of life it functions better in bilinguals,” said Ellen Bialystok, a psychologist at York University in Toronto as reported by the Guardian. “They perform at a higher level. It won’t stop them from getting Alzheimer’s disease, but they can cope with the disease for longer.

“Being bilingual has certain cognitive benefits and boosts the performance of the brain, especially one of the most important areas known as the executive control system,” she added.

While all of the research studies linked language skills and brain activity, they did not show a cause and effect relationship, and experts feel more investigation into the area is warranted.

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