Researchers have found that the course of age-related brain changes can be delayed and mitigated with bilingualism. The brain starts performing worse as we grow older: overall processing speed of information slows down, deterioration of short-term memory, as well as episodic memory, is experienced, and control over language skills, visuospatial and executive functions is reduced. This is a process known as ‘cognitive aging’, which manifests itself through anatomical changes at the neuronal level in the white and grey matter in certain brain areas.1✅ JOURNAL REFERENCE
The speed at which aging takes place can however vary and is dependent upon an individual’s cognitive reserve, which is the capability of the brain to deal with the age-related brain damage’s effects and maintain optimum performance. This reserve accumulates throughout an individual’s life, as neural networks are strengthened by the brain in response to a variety of external stimuli.
The more complex an individual’s neural networks are, the greater the cognitive reserve of an individual is and the milder any changes related to age will be. It’s already established that cognitive reserve is affected by socio-economic status, level of education, leisure habits, physical exercise, career, nutrition, and various other factors.
The researchers decided to take a look at how bilingualism affected brain functioning in older individuals and its relation to other cognitive reserve aspects. An experiment with 63 individuals 60 years or older was conducted. The individuals were healthy and without any history of neurodegenerative or psychiatric issues. The requirements to participate in the study were a partial knowledge of a 2nd language at a minimum (‘bilingualism’ in this case meaning the capability to speak 2 languages, regardless of how fluently).
A questionnaire was taken before the study started by all of the individuals that evaluated their cognitive reserve (which included questions regarding sports activities, social relationships, profession, level of education, marital status, etc.) How long the individuals had known a 2nd language also had to be specified, where and how often they used this language, and how fluent they were in it.
The individuals were given a ‘flanker task’, a traditionally used inhibitory executive control measurement. The individuals were shown a row of 5 arrows, with the central ‘target’ arrow being the main stimulus. The “flanking” arrows on either side of the central arrow can point congruently in the same direction as the main stimulus, incongruently in the opposite direction, or they can be swapped out for other objects like squares. The individuals were required to point out the central target’s direction, and to do so in the shortest possible time.
It’s normally more difficult for an individual to concentrate and give the correct answer in an incongruent situation. Bilingualism however exhibited a facilitatory effect on the task. The longer individuals had been learning a 2nd language and the greater their fluency was, the better their performance was in the experiment.
The level of language skills of the individuals played a more important role than how long they had been studying a 2nd language. This result could be explained by the fact that bilingual speakers are constantly facing similar conflicts in daily life, in which choices must be made and switching between 2 linguistic systems.
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