In an increasingly connected world, the everyday advantages of being able to speak multiple languages are easy to recognize. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, bilingualism has been shown to:
- Increase creativity when it comes to problem solving and using information in unique ways.
- Help people develop better listening skills and amplify their ability to connect with others.
- Enhance an individual’s ability to learn and categorize new words.
A recently released study has also solidified the previously discovered link between being bilingual and a reduced dementia risk in older adults.
Researchers from the University of Edinburgh Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology compared the intelligence test results of 835 men and women, taken when they were 11 years old, to the results of cognitive functioning tests taken by these same individuals when they were 73.
Aging adults who spoke at least one language other than their native tongue performed much better on their cognitive functioning tests than their childhood IQ tests suggested they would. Thomas Bak, a leading researcher at the Centre, comments on the significance of the study’s most surprising finding: “Millions of people around the world acquire their second language in later life. Our study shows that bilingualism, even when acquired in adulthood, may provide a small benefit to the aging brain.”
Preparing the brain to outwit dementia
The key phrase to keep in mind is “small benefit.”
In spite of the advantages of being bilingual—a 2013 study, published in the journal Neurology, found that speaking more than one language could potentially hold off dementia for an additional 4.5 years—learning a second language isn’t going to stop someone from getting Alzheimer’s. There is no way to one-hundred percent prevent any of the irreversible manifestations of dementia (e.g. Alzheimer’s, vascular dementia, Lewy Body disease, Parkinson’s dementia).
However, there are variety of steps a person can take to maintain their brain’s health and agility as they age.
Scientists have identified a mechanism called ‘cognitive reserve‘ that can stave off the effects of age-related cognitive decline, and may help mitigate some early symptoms of dementia. Neuron death, tissue shrinkage and neurotransmitter malfunctioning are all potential by-products of the aging brain, and can also contribute to memory loss and various forms of dementia. By building up one’s cognitive reserve throughout life—by pursuing higher education and lifelong learning, staying socially active, eating right and exercising regularly, and reducing stress—an individual can make their brain more nimble and equip it to function better when these events begin to occur.
MRI scans of different individuals with dementia have shown that the brains of people who have a greater cognitive reserve can actually form new neuronal pathways to compensate for those that have become damaged.
There’s no such thing as a cognitive cure-all, but as the new University of Edinburgh investigation highlights, it’s never too late to start taking steps to build brainpower. In addition to learning a new language, here are 8 Easy Ways to Build Cognitive Reserve to get you started.
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By Anne-Marie Botek, AgingCare.com Editor