Bilingual Seniors Have Sharper BrainsEditor's Choice
Main Category: Neurology / Neuroscience
Also Included In: Seniors / Aging
Article Date: 09 Jan 2013 - 11:00 PST
Bilingual Seniors Have Sharper Brains
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The brains of bilingual seniors work faster and more efficiently than seniors who speak just one language.
The finding was published in the Journal of Neuroscience and came from new research which demonstrated that seniors who have been bilingual since childhood can switch tasks faster than monolingual seniors.
The team of experts, from the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, explained that different patterns of brain activity were seen in lifelong bilinguals compared to their their monolingual peers when switching from task to task.
This illustrates the importance of regularly stimulating mental activity throughout a person's lifetime. Cognitive flexibility (the capability to adjust to unusual or unanticipated situations) and associated "executive" functions decline as people grow older.
Recent reports propose that this decline may reduce with lifelong bilingualism, as a result of the brain constantly switching between languages. One study showed that older bilingual adults make up for age-related declines in brainpower by developing new ways to process language.
However, scientists have been unsure about how brain activity in bilingual people varies from the brain activity of monolinguals.
In order to analyze the brain activity of healthy bilingual seniors (aged 60 to 68), and then compare it to that of healthy monolingual seniors, the scientists, led by Brian T. Gold, PhD, used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) while the subjects performed an assignment that measured their cognitive flexibility.
Although all participants completed the assignment correctly, the experts found that the seniors who spoke two languages completed the task quicker than those who spoke one language, while also utilizing less energy in the frontal cortex (area of the brain responsible for switching tasks).
John L. Woodard, PhD, an aging expert from Wayne State University, who was not a researcher in the report, commented:
"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. The authors provide clear evidence of a different pattern of neural functioning in bilingual versus monolingual individuals."
Young adults who were either bilingual or monolingual were also involved in the study so that the researchers could evaluate their brain activity while they completed the assignment which measured their cognitive flexibility.
Even though the young adults performed the task quicker than the seniors, the brain activity and task performance of the young bilingual subjects was not different than that of their monolingual peers. On the other hand, the bilingual seniors completed the assignment faster than the monolingual seniors who needed to expend more energy in the frontal parts of the brain.
"This suggests that bilingual seniors use their brains more efficiently than monolingual seniors. Together, these results suggest that lifelong bilingualism may exert its strongest benefits on the functioning of frontal brain regions in aging."
The study received funding from the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.
Written by Sarah Glynn
Copyright: Medical News Today
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22 May. 2013. <http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/254753.php>
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