Known two languages all your life?

Bilingualism may help you stay smarter as you age

Man speaking English and French
Seniors who have known two languages lifelong can switch between tasks faster

Seniors citizens who speak two languages right from childhood are better than single-language speakers at switching from one task to another, according to a study published in the The Journal of Neuroscience. In comparison to their monolingual peers, lifelong bilinguals have different patterns of brain activity when making the switch, the study found.

Regularly stimulating the brain across the lifetime is quite essential. As people age, the ability to adapt to unfamiliar or unexpected circumstances reduces. Lifelong bilingualism can help arrest this decline — a boost that may have origins in constant switching between languages.

In the current study, Brian T. Gold, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, used functional magnetic resonance imaging [fMRI] to contrast the brain activity of healthy bilingual seniors [ages 60-68] with the brain activity of healthy monolingual seniors as both groups took a cognitive flexibility test. Both groups performed the task accurately. But, bilingual seniors were faster at finishing the task than their monolingual peers and they also spent less energy in the frontal cortex — an area known to be involved in task switching.

“This study provides some of the first evidence of an association between a particular cognitively stimulating activity — in this case, speaking multiple languages on a daily basis — and brain function,” said John L. Woodard, PhD, an aging expert from Wayne State University, who was not involved with the study. “The authors provide clear evidence of a different pattern of neural functioning in bilingual versus monolingual individuals.”

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