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A new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience brings good news for bilingual seniors. Researchers found that older adults who had spoken more than one language since childhood were able to switch between tasks faster than those who spoke only a single language. The research may encourage older adults living in assisted living communities to pick up a second language to help stave off cognitive decline, as researchers say the results show the benefits of regular mental activity throughout one's lifetime.
As one ages, the ability to react to unexpected or unfamiliar scenarios naturally declines. The study leaders believe that because bilingual people are used to switching back and forth from one language to another, this form of cognitive decline is reduced.
Researchers from the University of Kentucky College of Medicine used fMRI scans to look at the brain activity of bilingual adults between the ages of 60 and 84. They compared these scans to healthy seniors who spoke only one language, then tested both groups of older adults to investigate their cognitive flexibility. While both bilingual and monolingual were able to perform the tests well, bilingual seniors completed the tasks faster, and the fMRI scans showed they spent less energy in the frontal cortex of the brain. This portion of the brain is believed to be responsible for "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 Dr. John L. Woodward of Wayne State University, who was involved with the study. "The authors provide clear evidence of a different pattern of neural functioning in bilingual versus monolingual individuals."