Study suggests bilingualism from an early age could slow cognitive decline in older people and protect them from dementia
Speaking two languages offers the opportunity to make friends and work almost anywhere, especially if the second language is English. Now for a new study suggests that the bilingualism it can also have another advantage: improve memory in old age. Studying hundreds of older patients, a group of German researchers found that those who reported speaking two languages every day from a young age scored higher on tests of learning, memory, language and self-control than patients who spoke only a language.
The findings, published in the April issue of Neurobiology of Aging, add to two decades of work on the topic and suggest that bilingualism protects against dementia and cognitive decline in later life.
Studies not always consistent
In recent years, scientists have gained more knowledge about bilingualism and the aging brain, although not all of their findings have been consistent. Some have found that if people who are fluent in two languages develop dementia, they will do so at an older age than people who speak only one language. But other research hasn’t revealed any clear benefits of bilingualism.
Neuroscientists speculate that because bilingual people switch between languages fluently, they may be able to implement similar strategies in other situations such as multitasking, emotion management and self-control, which help delay dementia when goes on with age. According to a study published in Nature Neuroscience in 2018, bilingualism creates a cognitive reserve that protects against Alzheimer’s. A 2017 work had highlighted how bilingualism can save brain resources: the mind of those who speak two languages learns to concentrate more and better and to save cognitive resources, thus representing an advantage during ageing. Studies on bilingualism have often focused on children: being born bilingual seems to be linked to making decisions more quickly.
The new studio
The new study, with very large numbers, looked at 746 people between the ages of 59 and 76. About 40% of the volunteers had no memory problems, while the rest were patients who had experienced confusion or memory loss. All were subjected to various tests: vocabulary, memory, attention and calculation. For example, they were asked to recall previously named objects, write words backwards, follow three-part commands, and copy the drawings they were shown. Volunteers who reported speaking a second language on a daily basis between the ages of 13 and 30 or between 30 and 65 achieved scores higher in terms of language, memory, concentration, attention and decision-making than non-bilinguals at that age.
Does the age at which you learn a second language affect it?
According to Boon Lead Tee, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, who was not involved in the research, interviewed by the New York Times, investigating bilingualism in the different stages of life is a very interesting criterion. He added that because of the impressive sample size, the study authors may be able to generate other new results, such as whether the age at which a person learned each language affected cognitive activity later in life.
However, the study focused on only one aspect of bilingualism: the daily use of two languages for long periods of time. The positive effects on cognitive activity could be due to other factors such as the age at which the two languages were encoded in memory, the type of population or the life experiences of bilinguals. Other experts agreed that the results might have been different had the researchers asked the volunteers whether they spoke a second language once a week, or even less frequently, instead of every day.
May 14, 2023 (change May 14, 2023 | 07:00)
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