It’s never too late to pick up a second language and reap the brain benefits, a study spanning seven decades has revealed.
It’s long been suggested that speaking another language can improve cognitive abilities, and studies have even suggested that people with Alzheimer’s who are fluent in two languages develop symptoms of the condition four or five years later than people who can only speak one language.
But this research hadn’t been able to untangle whether it was learning a language that was providing these benefits, or whether something else was involved - particularly as a lot of studies were on people who grew up bilingual.
This new research, published in Annals of Neurology, changes that. The study tracked around 1,100 people born in Scotland in 1936, and tested their mental abilities both at age 11 and when they were in their early 70s, and offers the best evidence to date that learning another language slows the mental decline that comes with getting older.
When the participants had their first tests at 11, none of the participants spoke another language, as Catherine de Lange reports for New Scientist. But by the age of 70, around one-third or 262 of the participants had learned a second language.
The team from the University of Edinburgh in the UK found that this group got better scores on their 70s tests than their 11-year-old test scores predicted.
Given that individual IQs and starting test scores were all factored into the study, this suggests that it was learning the language that caused the difference.
According to Thomas Bak, leader of the study, the benefits of learning a second language to the ageing brain were comparable to physical activity or not smoking.
So what's causing this slow-down of congitive decline? de Lange explains: “A leading theory is that people who speak several languages constantly activate all the available words in each one before choosing the appropriate expression, giving them a mental workout.”