Learning a second language can slow the brain's ageing, even if it is learnt in adulthood, according to new research.
Previous studies have showed that being bilingual could delay the onset of dementia by several years.
The latest research sought to answer the question of whether people improve their brain function through learning new languages or whether those with better brain functions are more likely to become bilingual.
Dr Thomas Bak from the Centre for Cognitive Aging and Cognitive Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, who led the research said: "Our study is the first to examine whether learning a second language impacts cognitive performance later in life while controlling for childhood intelligence.”
The team assessed data from the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936, which involved 835 native English speakers.
The participants were given an intelligence test in 1947 at the age of 11 and were retested in their early 70s, between 2008 and 2010. Of the participants, 262 said they were able to communicate in at least one language other than English. Of those, 195 learned the second language before the age of 18, while 65 learned the language after this age.
Researchers found that those who spoke two or more languages had significantly better cognitive abilities in later life, compared to what would be predicted from their performance in the tests at age 11.
The strongest effects were seen in general intelligence and reading. Researchers said the effects were present in those who acquired their second language later in life, as well as early.
No negative effects of bilingualism were observed in any group.
Dr Bak said the improvements in cognitive development could not be explained by original levels of intelligence.
He added: “These findings are of considerable practical relevance. 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 ageing brain.”
Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School said, “The epidemiological study provides an important first step in understanding the impact of learning a second language and the ageing brain.
This research paves the way for future causal studies of bilingualism and cognitive decline prevention.”
Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK which supported the research, said: “Over one million people in the UK aged 65 and over are estimated to have some degree of cognitive impairment. We urgently need to understand what influences cognitive ageing so that we can give people better advice about protecting their cognitive health. This latest breakthrough is another stride forward in finding out how thinking skills can be preserved in later life.”
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