Study: Language Learning Associated With Cognitive Benefits for Older Adults

Learning a new language can benefit and improve brain health, according to a study published in Aging Neuropsychology and Cognition. The investigators found that older adults who studied Spanish had similar improvements to critical cognitive skills as those engaged in brain training activities specifically targeting those skills. Participants in the study learning Spanish also reported greater enjoyment than those engaging in brain training.

The researchers noted prior studies have found that bilingual individuals develop dementia later in life, suggesting that bilingualism has a protective effect on brain health. According to the investigators, the current study is among the first to examine whether the process of learning a language can benefit brain health in similar ways as bilingualism.

“The participants in our study showed significant cognitive improvements without becoming nearly fluent in Spanish, which suggests that you don’t have to be bilingual for your brain to benefit from working with another language,” said Ellen Bialystok, PhD, OC, FRSC, Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Psychology at York University, in a press release. “This is encouraging since bilingualism is often reached early in life and difficult to achieve in adulthood, while we can choose to learn another language at any age to reap some of the cognitive benefits enjoyed by bilingual individuals.”

The study recruited 76 adults aged 65 to 75 years, all of whom spoke only 1 language, were cognitively healthy, had never formally studied Spanish before and had not studied any other language in the past 10 years. These participants were randomized into 3 groups: language learning, brain training, or a waitlist serving as a control group. For 16 weeks, participants either spent 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week learning Spanish using Duolingo, an online language learning app, or used BrainHQ by Posit Science for the same amount of time.

According to the investigators, those in the language learning group showed similar improvements as the brain training group in working memory and executive function, whereas only those in the brain training group showed improvements in processing speed. However, the language learning group reported greater enjoyment than the brain training group in a questionnaire, and program adherence was higher among the language learning group.

“Besides the cognitive benefits, learning a second language may enrich older adults’ lives in other important ways—for instance, by leading to new friendships or opening the door to a new culture or travel, helping them live life to the fullest,” said Jed Meltzer, PhD, in the release.

REFERENCE

Studying a second language boosts cognitive function, suggests new Baycrest-York University study [news release]. EurekAlert; October 25, 2021. Accessed October 27, 2021. https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/932612