Lexington, Ky. (CBS CLEVELAND) — Bilingual adults have sharper and quicker brain activity that can resist mental decline more effectively in later years than those who speak only one language.

Seniors who have spoken two languages since childhood are faster than single-language speakers at switching from one task to another and have better “cognitive flexibility,” according to a study published in the Jan. 9 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience.

Compared to their monolingual peers, lifelong bilinguals also show different patterns of brain activity when making the switch, the University of Kentucky College of Medicine study found. Brian T. Gold, PhD, and colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare the brain activity of healthy bilingual seniors (ages 60-68) with that of healthy monolingual seniors as they completed a task that tested their cognitive flexibility.

The researchers found that both groups performed the task accurately. But the bilingual seniors were faster at completing the task than their monolingual peers despite expending less energy in the frontal cortex — an area known to be involved in task-switching ability.

“This study provides some of the first evidence of an association between a particular cognitively stimulating activity — in this case, speaking multiple languages on a daily basis — and brain function,” John L. Woodard, PhD, an aging expert from Wayne State University, who was not involved with the study, told The Society for Neuroscience. “The authors provide clear evidence of a different pattern of neural functioning in bilingual versus monolingual individuals.”

The researchers also collected data from younger bilingual and monolingual adults for comparison.

As a whole, the young adults were faster than the seniors at performing the task. Being bilingual did not affect task performance or brain activity in the young participants. In contrast, older bilinguals performed the task faster than their monolingual peers and expended less energy in the frontal parts of their brain.

“Together, these results suggest that lifelong bilingualism may exert its strongest benefits on the functioning of frontal brain regions in aging,” Gold said in a statement to The Journal of Neuroscience.

There have been numerous recent studies that suggest the long-term mental benefits of bilingualism, a study published last year in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences shows that being able to speak two languages could help to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s.

The research was funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.


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