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A new study shows that bilingualism has a positive effect on cognition in later life, even if the language is taken up in adulthood. A previous study has also already shown that being bilingual may delay the onset of dementia by several years.
The study, led by Dr. Thomas Bak, from the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology (CCACE) at the University of Edinburgh, has been published in the Annals of Neurology.
A study of 262 Edinburgh-born individuals aged either 11 or in their seventies, was conducted. Of that group, 195 learned the second language before the age of 18, and 65 learned it after that time. All participants said they were able to communicate in at least one language other than English.
Participants who spoke two or more languages had significantly better cognitive abilities compared to what would have been expected from their baseline test. The strongest effects were seen in general intelligence and reading. The effects were present in those who learned their second language early, as well as later in life.
Dr. Bak said the pattern they found was "meaningful" and the improvements in attention, focus and fluency could not be explained by original intelligence.
"These findings are of considerable practical relevance. Millions of people around the world acquire their second language later in life. Our study shows that bilingualism, even when acquired in adulthood, may benefit the ageing brain."
But he admitted that the study also raised many questions, such as whether learning more than one language could also have the same positive effect on cognitive ageing and whether actively speaking a second language is better than just knowing how to speak it.
Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston, US, said: "The epidemiological study provides an important first step in understanding the impact of learning a second language and the ageing brain.
"This research paves the way for future causal studies of bilingualism and cognitive decline prevention."