Study Shows Bilingual People Have Stronger, Healthier Brains

💡What To Know:

  • Learning a 2nd language at an early age led to better brain health during old age.
  • Bilingual participants had more gray matter volume in brain scans.
  • Better brain health can create more resilience against cognitive decline as an adult.

SINGAPORE — When you age, your body and brain change. Some parts of the brain shrink, and communication between neurons loses effectiveness. However, a new study finds that learning another language in your youth could be the key to better brain health in old age.

“Such structural and functional changes result in an age-related decline in cognitive function, affecting language, processing speed, memory, and planning abilities,” says Yow Wei Quin, a professor at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD).

Cognitive reserve describes the brain’s ability to adapt to this natural decline, allowing one to use alternative paths and brain regions to perform tasks. Closely related is the brain reserve, which defines desirable brain anatomy characteristics, like larger brain size and more neuronal synapses.

“These reserves highlight the brain’s flexibility and resilience. An individual with greater reserves is likely to maintain good cognitive function in aging,” adds Professor Yow in a media release.

One of the several factors that contribute to cognitive reserve is bilingualism. People who are bilingual are consistently flowing between two different languages and communicating with people from different cultures can enhance their ability to interpret social cues. Additionally, knowing multiple languages is linked to stronger mental flexibility, attention control, and working memory skills that are critical for social cognition and the ability to understand other people’s behavior by attributing certain beliefs and emotions to them.

Previously, studies on children and young adults have demonstrated that being bilingual positively impacts these skill sets. However, it begged the question of whether these benefits would last later in life. This is what Professor Yow and her research fellow, Dr. Li Xiaoqian, wanted to explore.

bilingual brain scans
Higher gray matter volume, larger suface area, and greater cortical thickness were associated with earlier bilingual acquisition and better performance in theory of mind. CREDIT: SUTD

In their paper, the SUTD team, alongside another group from the National University of Singapore (NUS), showed that early bilingualism could protect these abilities against age-related brain decline. Currently, there is sufficient evidence showing that learning and using a second language can lead to structural and functional changes in the brain. Thus, the team hypothesized that learning a new language early on could positively impact overall brain function and generate more efficient structural properties.

This would, in turn, provide reserves that combat age-related cognitive decline. Some researchers think the specific changes involved have to do with brain areas that are involved in mental state inferences, while others think it has to do with areas involved in language or cognitive control processes.

In Yow’s study, it was found that early bilingualism and better social cognitive performance in both young and old adults were linked with higher volumes of gray matter, greater cortical thickness, and larger surface area in these brain regions. This proposes that the earlier you learn a second language, the more favorable structural changes occur in the brain, and the greater cognitive reserve is established to protect social cognitive processes against the effects of aging.

Not only is bilingualism a valuable social and professional skill to have, but it may also benefit brain health in ways scientists are continuously trying to understand more deeply. So far, we know that it can allow a person to create and maintain relationships, participate in activities they like, and possibly decrease the need for elder care later on.  Looking ahead, the team plans to use the gathered behavioral and neuroimaging data to further explore the effect of bilingualism on social cognitive functioning.

The findings are published in the journal Scientific Reports.


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