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Cognitive decline slowed by learning second language: study

June 2, 2014
by Lois A. Bowers, Senior Editor
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Is it time to add foreign language classes to your activities schedule? Individuals who speak two or more languages—even those who acquired the second language in adulthood—may experience slower cognitive decline from aging, according to new research published in Annals of Neurology.

Although previous research has investigated the effects of learning more than one language, it has been difficult to prove whether people improve their cognitive functions through learning new languages or whether those with better baseline cognitive functions are more likely to become bilingual. “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 Thomas Bak, MD, from the Center for Cognitive Aging and Cognitive Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.

For the current study, researchers relied on data from a cohort of 835 native speakers of English who were born and living in the area of Edinburgh, Scotland. The participants were given an intelligence test as children in 1947 and were retested when they were in their early 70s, between 2008 and 2010. A total of 262 participants reported being able to communicate in at least one language other than English. Of those, 195 learned the second language before age 18, and 65 learned it later.

Those who spoke two or more languages had significantly better cognitive abilities compared with what would be expected from their baseline function. The strongest effects were seen in general intelligence and reading. The effects existed in those who acquired their second language early as well as late in life.

“These findings are of considerable practical relevance," Bak says. "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.”

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