Learning a second language and its impact on brain health and well-being in seniors

By Caitlin Ware

(posted 1st October 2019)

The adult brain can change and grow as a result of learning[1], even in later life.[2]

It is thought that learning a second language could be a very promising and dynamic way of improving cognitive capacities and maintaining the brain’s functions, as both structural and functional neurological differences have been observed in bilinguals compared to people who only speak one language (monolinguals).

These brain differences may determine how the brain ages and compensates for pathology.[3] What is more, bilingualism and multilingualism have been shown to contribute to a delay in the onset of dementia in seniors.[4]

Although remaining a subject of hot debate[5], research has shown that bilingualism seems to strengthen certain cognitive processes, constituting a ‘bilingual advantage.’ Compared to monolinguals, bilinguals have demonstrated higher scores on cognitive tests, especially those measuring attention and mental control.

Some neuroanatomical and functional changes have been associated with foreign language learning, such as the growth of certain brain regions, and a better connectivity between them. This is promising in the context of ageing, as the brain tends to lose its volume and connectivity with time.[6]

Although research in language learning has focused mainly on children and young adults, a few studies have concentrated on the effects of second language learning in seniors. Not only has it been shown to be feasible and beneficial from a subjective point of view[7], research has shown that it can strengthen cognitive functioning, as well as psychological well-being and quality of life.[8] Moreover, a recent study has evidenced increased connectivity between certain brain regions of Italian older adults learning English after only four months of training.[9] Indeed, learning a foreign language is an intense intellectual activity, which involves memory and attention.

Learning a second language can also engage communication, travel, and involvement in the community, providing seniors with an outlet to improve their overall well-being and sense of confidence. More studies are needed involving larger groups and a longitudinal design and the Silver Santé study is the first to carry out such research. With a language-learning intervention of 18 months, Silver Santé is the longest ever study of its kind and it will be fascinating to see what impact the course has on the mental health and well-being of its participants.

 

Sources: 

[1]Lövdén, M., Wenger, E., Mårtensson, J., Lindenberger, U., Bäckman, L. (2013) Structural brain plasticity in adult learning and development. Neuroscience Biobehavioral Review,37, 2296-310. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2013.02.014.

[2] Pauwels, L., Chalavi, S., Swinnen, S. (2018) Aging and Brain plasticity. Aging (Albany) 10(8), 1789–1790. doi: 10.18632/aging.101514

[3] Bialystok, E., Abutalebi, J., Bak, T.H., Burke, D.M., Kroll, J.F., (2016) Aging in two languages: Implications for Public Health. Ageing Res Rev, 27, 56–60. doi:10.1016/j.arr.2016.03.003.

[4] Perani, D., Abutalebi, J. (2015) Bilingualism, Dementia, Cognitive and Neural Reserve. Curr Opin Neurol, 28, 618–625. DOI:10.1097/

[5] García-Pentón, L., Fernández García, Y., Costello, B., Andoni Duñabeitia, J., Carreiras, M. (2016) The neuroanatomy of bilingualism: how to turn a hazy view into the full picture. Language, Cognition and Neuroscience, 31:3, 303-327. DOI: 10.1080/23273798.2015.1068944

[6] Siman-Tov, T., Bosak, N., Sprecher, E., Paz, R., Eran, A., Aharon-Peretz, J., Kahn, I. (2017) Early Age-Related Functional Connectivity Decline in High-Order Cognitive Networks. Front. Aging Neurosci. 8:330, 1-17. doi: 10.3389/fnagi.2016.00330

[7] Ware, C., Damnee, S., Djabelkhir, L., Cristancho, V., Wu, Y.-H., Benovici, J., Pino, M., Rigaud, A.-S. (2017) Maintaining Cognitive Functioning in Healthy Seniors with a Technology-Based Foreign Language Program: A Pilot Feasibility Study. Front. Aging Neurosci. 9:42. 1-10. doi: 10.3389/

[8][ Pfenninger, S. E., Polz, S. (2018). Foreign language learning in the third age: A pilot feasibility study on cognitive, socio-affective and linguistic drivers and benefits in relation to previous bilingualism of the learner. Journal of the European Second Language Association, 2(1), 1–13. DOI:http://doi.org/10.22599/jesla.36

[9] Bubbico, G., Chiacchiaretta, P., Parenti, M., di Marco, M., Panara, V., Sepede, G., Ferretti, A., Perrucci, M.G. (2019) Effects of Second Language Learning on the Plastic Aging Brain: Functional Connectivity, Cognitive Decline, and Reorganization. Front. Neurosci. 13:423, 1-13. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2019.00423

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