Speaking Two Languages Benefits the Aging Brain

A new study led by CCACE member Dr Thomas Bak (pictured right, with his daughter), reveals that bilingualism has a positive effect on cognition later in life.  See the story on the BBC

The study, examining 835 participants, shows that those who speak two or more languages were better on some cognitive tests than would be predicted from their performance in such tests at age 11.

A positive effect of bilingualism (including a delay in the onset of dementia) has been reported in previous studies, however it has proven difficult to determine whether people improve their cognitive functions through learning new languages or whether those with better baseline cognitive functions are more likely to become bilingual.  The Lothian Birth Cohort 1936 allowed the CCACE researchers to address this question for the first time.  This study shows the effect of speaking more than one language is independent of age 11 cognition. 

No negative effects of bilingualism were observed in any group. “These findings are of considerable relevance”, says Thomas Bak. “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 co-authored by CCACE core staff members, Dr Mike Allerhand and Jack Nissan and CCACE Director Prof Ian Deary.  These findings are published in the journal Annals of Neurology today, 2 June 2014. 

This study builds on earlier work which shows that speaking more than one language delays the onset of dementia by 4.5 years http://www.ccace.ed.ac.uk/news-events/latest/bilingualism

University of Edinburgh Press Release: http://www.ed.ac.uk/news/2014/languages-020614

Image credit: Murdo MacLeod