Research has shown that older people who remain socially and mentally active may be less likely to develop dementia. According to a new studies, learning another language may also help keep the mind young and delay the onset of age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s. Research has shown that mental activity builds up a “cognitive reserve,” helping the brain function around the physical decay of the brain that is present with Alzheimer’s. A recent Canadian study found that being bilingual helps build this “cognitive reserve” and may protect the brain against the effects of age-related memory loss.
Researchers tested roughly 200 patients who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s; half of them were bilingual and half spoke only one language. While all the patients had similar degrees of cognitive impairment, those who were bilingual had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s about four years later than those who spoke just one language. Furthermore, the bilingual people reported their symptoms had started about five years later than those in the monolingual group. This delay in symptoms occurred regardless of other factors like occupation, education and immigration.
So how precisely does speaking two languages help the brain stay young? Research suggests that bilingual speakers are not only speaking, but also thinking in two languages, which helps strengthen executive function and ability to weed out irrelevant information. With mental tasks such as focus, multitasking and prioritization, bilingual speakers outperform single-language speakers. There is even new evidence that speaking two or more languages causes physical changes to the brain. Research is currently being performed to determine how the structure of the brain is altered by the experience of speaking a second language.
This study affirms that learning a new language, even at an old age, provides a beneficial workout for the brain. Based on increasing scientific evidence, lifestyle factors such as regular exercise, a healthy diet, and speaking more than one language can help protect the brain against age-related decline and disease.