Learning a New Language Protects the Brain

If Sudoku puzzles aren’t your thing you’re in luck. There’s a new method trending to keep your brain sharp and help ward off cognitive decline and dementia. Learn a second language! While learning a new language might be easier when you’re young, it isn’t impossible to pick up French, Spanish, Mandarin…whatever language “speaks” to you…when you’re an adult. Need motivation? A new study published in this month’s Annals of Neurology found that bilingual adults (no matter if they learned a second language as a child or an adult) had better mental acuity than monolingual adults.

spanishBilingualism Boosts Brain Function

According to the research, learning a new language as an adult protects the brain from age-related cognitive decline. Scientists studied the mental faculties of 835 individuals born in Scotland in 1936. Subjects took a series of mental tests at age 11, and again in their early 70s. Two hundred sixty-two people were bilingual, 67 of whom learned a second language after the age of 18. Results showed that regardless of when a second language was learned, those who were bilingual scored significantly higher on mental tests than what was expected based on the results of their tests taken when they were young. Performance excelled in the areas of general intelligence and reading, in particular.

This study is unique in that it is the first to consider childhood intelligence when accounting for the effects of bilingualism on cognitive abilities later in life. In a journal news release, study author Dr. Thomas Bak, from the Centre for Cognitive Aging and Cognitive Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said “These findings are of considerable practical relevance. Millions of people around the world acquire their second language later in life. Our study shows that bilingualism, even when acquired in adulthood, may benefit the aging brain.”

Bilingualism Delays Alzheimer’s Disease

Cognitive neuroscientist Ellen Bialystoy, recipient of the Killman Prize for her contributions to social science, found that bilingual adults who regularly use at least two languages can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms by an average of five to six years. Analyzing the medical records of 400 Alzheimer’s patients, she discovered that those fluent in multiple languages were able to manage the disease much longer than those who only spoke one language.

Although the precise mechanism by which bilingualism protects the brain isn’t known, scientists theorize that speaking two languages delivers more oxygen and blood to the brain, thereby optimizing nerve connections and staving off dementia. Researchers recently found that bilingual adults have denser gray matter in the left hemisphere of the brain, which is mostly responsible for processing language and communication. Gray matter in the brain is loaded with information-managing nerve cells and fibers.

The good news is that it’s never too late to learn. And once you’ve mastered your language of choice, treat yourself to a vacation so you can practice in style and soak up the culture!