October 25, 2021
Learning a second language is an effective and enjoyable way to improve brain health, reports a new study
that was jointly conducted by Baycrest and York University.
Researchers found that older adults who studied Spanish showed similar improvements in certain critical cognitive skills as did those who engaged in brain training activities that targeted those skills. These results are remarkable given that brain training focuses specifically on improving these aspects of cognition, while language learning does not. As well, those who learned Spanish reported greater enjoyment than those who engaged in brain training.
This study, published in the journal Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition
, is among the first to examine whether the process of learning a language can benefit brain health in similar ways as bilingualism.
“These results are exciting because they indicate that older adults can reap cognitive benefits from an enjoyable activity in which they might want to participate, regardless of these benefits,” says Dr. Jed Meltzer, Baycrest’s Canada Research Chair in Interventional Cognitive Neuroscience, a neurorehabilitation scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute (RRI) and the lead author on this study.
Evidence suggests that bilingualism has a protective effect on brain health, with bilinguals developing dementia later in life than monolinguals. However, little is known about the cognitive impact of the process of learning a second language without becoming fully bilingual.
“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,” says Dr. Ellen Bialystok, Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Psychology at York University, and Associate Scientist at the RRI. “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.”
In the study, the researchers recruited 76 older adults aged 65-75. All participants spoke only one language, were cognitively healthy, had never formally studied Spanish before and had not studied any other language in the past 10 years.
Participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups: language learning, brain training or a waitlist (with no language learning or brain training), which served as the control group. For 16 weeks, those in the language learning group spent 30 minutes a day, five days a week learning Spanish using Duolingo, an online language learning app. Those in the brain training group spent the same amount of time but used BrainHQ by Posit Science.
The researchers assessed participants’ performance on specific cognitive tasks before and after the 16 weeks. These tasks were similar to the exercises in BrainHQ. At the end of the intervention, they also measured participants’ adherence to the learning schedule and their enjoyment of the program they followed (language learning or brain training).
They found that participants in the language learning group showed similar improvements as the brain training group in two areas of cognition: working memory and executive function – that is, the ability to manage conflicting information, stay focused and avoid distractions.
In contrast, only the brain training group showed improvements in processing speed. This result was expected, since brain training specifically targets this skill by adding time pressure to each activity, while the language learning settings used in this study did not include any such pressure.
Additionally, the language learning group reported more enjoyment of their program than the brain training group. This was reflected in their answers to a questionnaire as well as their adherence to the program: the language learning group followed the learning schedule more consistently than the brain training group did.
“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,” says Dr. Meltzer, who is also an Associate Professor in the Departments of Psychology and Speech-Language Pathology at the University of Toronto.
This study was funded by a grant from the Centre for Aging + Brain Health Innovation (CABHI)
, with additional support from Duolingo. CABHI and Duolingo had no role in the study design, analysis or interpretation of results.
With additional funding, the researchers could look at the brain health effects of language learning under time constraints, to see whether this might lead to similar improvements in processing speed as brain training. This would also better reflect real-world settings in which language is used, since we do not have infinite time to listen and respond when engaging in conversation.
Baycrest is a global leader in research, innovation, education and care for older adults, with a special focus on brain health and aging. Baycrest is home to a robust research and innovation network, including one of the world’s top research institutes in cognitive neuroscience, the Rotman Research Institute; the scientific headquarters of the Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging, Canada’s largest national dementia research initiative; and the Baycrest-powered Centre for Aging + Brain Health Innovation, a solution accelerator focused on driving innovation in the aging and brain health sector. Baycrest helps aging adults assess, monitor, maintain and enhance cognition through an innovative portfolio of evidence-based products and services offered through its brain health company, Cogniciti.
Fully affiliated with the University of Toronto, Baycrest provides excellent care for older adults combined with an extensive clinical training program for the next generation of healthcare professionals. Through these initiatives, Baycrest has remained at the forefront of the fight to defeat dementia as the organization works to help individuals fear no age and create a world where every older adult enjoys a life of purpose, inspiration and fulfilment. Founded in 1918 as the Toronto Jewish Old Folks Home, Baycrest continues to embrace the long-standing tradition of all great Jewish healthcare institutions to improve the well-being of people in their local communities and around the globe. For more information about Baycrest, visit baycrest.org or visit FearNoAge.com for more information about our brand.
About Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute
The Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest is a premier international centre for the study of human brain function. Through generous support from private donors and funding agencies, the institute is helping to illuminate the causes of cognitive decline in seniors, identify promising approaches to treatment and lifestyle practices that will protect brain health longer in the lifespan.
About York University
York University is a modern, multi-campus, urban university located in Toronto, Ontario. Backed by a diverse group of students, faculty, staff, alumni and partners, we bring a uniquely global perspective to help solve societal challenges, drive positive change and prepare our students for success. York’s fully bilingual Glendon Campus is home to Southern Ontario’s Centre of Excellence for French Language and Bilingual Postsecondary Education. York’s campuses in Costa Rica and India offer students exceptional transnational learning opportunities and innovative programs. Together, we can make things right for our communities, our planet, and our future.