Learning a second language may prevent dementia

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A study done by the University of Edinburgh has indicated that learning a second language can have a positive effect on a person’s brain, even if it is started during adulthood.

Researchers found that verbal fluency, intelligence and reading ability was improved during their study of 262 people either aged 11 or in their 70s.

A study carried out previously suggested that being bilingual may delay the start of dementia by several years.

The main question during this study was whether the learning of a new language improved a person’s cognitive functions or whether those with better cognitive abilities were more likely to become bilingual.

The University of Edinburgh’s Dr Thomas Bak based at the Centre for Cognitive Aging and Cognitive Epidemiology, said he believed that he has found the answer to the question.

He used data from intelligence tests which had been carried out on 262 individuals born in Edinburgh, when they reached the age of 11. The study observed how the cognitive abilities of the individuals had changed once they were in their 70s.

The research was carried out during 2008 to 2010.

All the participants claimed that they were able to communicate in at least one other language, beside English. Of the monitored group, 195 had learned their second language prior to the age of 18, and 65 had learned if after that age.

The findings indicated that the individuals who were able to speak two or more languages displayed better cognitive abilities when compared to what was expected of their baseline test.

The best results were seen in reading and general intelligence. The effects were observed in those who learned the second language early, as well as later on in life.

Dr Bak stated that the pattern that was found proved to be meaningful. The improvements in fluency, focus and attention could not be attributed to original intelligence.

He stated that the findings of the research were of huge practical relevance. There are millions of people worldwide who learn a second language later in life. This study indicates that regardless of when bilingualism is accomplished, it may have benefits for an aging brain.

Dr Bak admitted that several questions were raised by the study, such as whether learning more than a single language may also have the same effect on cognitive aging and whether actually speaking a second language has a better effect than merely knowing how to speak it.

A professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Dr Alvaro Pascual-Leone, said that the epidemiological study offers and important initial step in understand the impact of learning an additional language and an aging brain. He stated that the research has paved the way for future causal studies of cognitive decline prevention and bilingualism.

The study has been published in Annals of Neurology.

Image Credit: woodleywonderworks

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