Published on: June 2, 2014
by Nicky Broyd for WebMD:
New research reveals that being bilingual benefits the aging brain even when the second language is acquired in adulthood.
Researchers at the University of Edinburgh found that people who spoke two or more languages had significantly better thinking skills in later life than could have been predicted from their IQ results as children.
“Our study is the first to examine whether learning a second language impacts cognitive performance later in life while controlling for childhood intelligence,” says lead author Dr Thomas Bak from the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh.
Learning later in life
For the study, researchers relied on data from the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936, comprised of 853 native English speakers who were born and living in the Edinburgh area. The participants were given an intelligence test in 1947 at 11 years of age and retested in their early 70s.
Two hundred and sixty two participants reported being able to communicate in at least one language other than English. Most learned the second language before the age of 18 but 65 learned a second language when they were older.
The researchers found that those who spoke two or more languages had significantly better cognitive abilities compared to what would have been expected from their early IQ tests. The strongest effects were seen in general intelligence and reading.
Dr Bak says in a press release: “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.”
The study was funded by Age UK. Its charity director, Caroline Abrahams, says in a prepared statement: “Over 1 million people in the UK aged 65 and over are estimated to have some degree of cognitive impairment. We urgently need to understand what influences cognitive ageing so that we can give people better advice about protecting their cognitive health.”
She says: “This latest breakthrough is another stride forward in finding out how thinking skills can be preserved in later life.”
The findings have been published in the medical journal, Annals of Neurology.
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