Points of View
Learning a second language and its impact on brain health and well-being in seniors
By Caitlin Ware
(posted 1st October 2019)
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. What is more, bilingualism and multilingualism have been shown to contribute to a delay in the onset of dementia in seniors.
Although remaining a subject of hot debate, 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.
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, research has shown that it can strengthen cognitive functioning, as well as psychological well-being and quality of life. Moreover, a recent study has evidenced increased connectivity between certain brain regions of Italian older adults learning English after only four months of training. 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.
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.
 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.
 Perani, D., Abutalebi, J. (2015) Bilingualism, Dementia, Cognitive and Neural Reserve. Curr Opin Neurol, 28, 618–625. DOI:10.1097/
 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
 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
 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/
[ 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
 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
Could brain training keep our cells younger?
By Dr Perla Kaliman
In an experiment involving identical twins, who would age faster: the twin who is placed in a high-speed rocket and travels near the speed of light or the twin who remains earthbound?
While studying this dilemma known as “the twin paradox,” Albert Einstein guessed that the date of birth is not enough to know the biological age of a person. In 1918, within the framework of his theory of relativity, Einstein showed that when returning from his trip to the stars, the galactic twin would be younger than his sibling born on the same date and with the same DNA. What was unknown 100 years ago is that we don’t need a trip on a space shuttle to modulate our cell ageing. Current research shows that less than 25% of the variations in human longevity can be attributed to our inherited genetic information. It is now clear that the quality of ageing and longevity result from powerful interactions between genes, environment, lifestyle and experiences.
Objectively we can talk about chronological age and biological age. The chronological age is calculated from our date of birth, while the biological age can be measured on our chromosomes. And they do not always match. There are repetitive DNA structures at the end of the chromosomes, called telomeres, whose function is to protect the genetic material. They fulfill a similar task to that of the ends of the shoe laces, that is, to prevent the DNA from fraying and damaging. With age, as part of a natural process, the telomeres get shorter. When the telomeres are already too short to efficiently carry out their protective functions, the cells lose their capacity for division, a phenomenon that increases the risk of most chronic age-related diseases i.e. cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome. Conversely, numerous studies indicate that longer telomeres predict long-term health. It has also been proven that the cells of centenarian people who are in good health have telomere lengths that correspond to younger chronological ages.
Recent research suggests that lifestyle-related factors influence the rate of biological ageing (i.e. nutrition, stress, quality of sleep, physical activity, education, social environment). In the Silver Santé Study, part of our work aims to identify lifestyle factors that may influence the rate of biological ageing. In order to do this, we collected blood samples from all the participants at the beginning of the Age-Well clinical trial and we are now obtaining a second sample from all of them at the end of mental training interventions. Our hypothesis is that brain training activities such as meditation and foreign language-learning may help to slow down the pace of the biological ageing. We very much look forward to learning and sharing the results of our study that may contribute to revealing the molecular mechanisms of long-term brain training on healthy ageing and may help in the design of preventive strategies for age-related chronic diseases.
The importance of qualitative data in the Silver Santé Study
By Stefano Poletti
(posted 1st March 2019)
Both quantitative and qualitative measures and outcomes are being used to evaluate the impact of the mental training techniques trialled in the Silver Santé Study.
While quantitative (e.g. behavioural, psychological, neurophysiological) research is important and gathers data within a pre-determined framework, it doesn’t always allow us to capture the richness and complexity of a participant’s own experiences of taking part in research of this kind. The addition of qualitative measures provides us with a much deeper understanding of the impact that learning a new language or practicing meditation may have on an individual’s life and can help provide answers as to why that might be the case.
In order to gather this qualitative data, one-to-one interviews are taking place with the volunteers at the end of each wave of the Age Well clinical trial. This qualitative evaluation adds important information about the subjective impact of the relevant intervention on participants. It includes, for example, their experiences of being randomly assigned to one of the intervention groups and provides valuable feedback on their own unique experiences of taking part in the group sessions and of the data collection process. They are also asked about the researchers, the intervention leaders, and the materials provided in the study as well as how they interact with the other volunteers and what they thought of the information shared during the classes.
To avoid any conflicts of interest, I have been recruited as an external researcher to the project to conduct the interviews as impartially as possible. To explore areas of interest, I gather information about the effectiveness and the impact of the Study, starting from a participant’s personal integration of it. These individual interviews enable us to access and document this broad variety of experiences (Clarke and Dawson, 1999: 39) and to enrich our knowledge of the project’s design, including its strengths and weaknesses.
During the first wave of the Study’s Age Well trial, our volunteers were highly engaged with the intervention and the interviews have allowed us to explore what contributed to this high level of interest as well as any lack of enthusiasm that may have existed. The biggest advantage of this qualitative data is the information it provides with regard to the motivation and engagement of participants throughout the project. It also helps us identify any safety and security issues (adverse effects) as well as any changes in outlook associated with their participation (e.g. social identity, belief and value systems.) – all of which are vital to truly understanding the impact of the interventions being studied.
Clarke and Dawson, 1999. Evaluation Research: An Introduction to Principles, Methods and Practice. SAGE Publications, Social Science, London
By Charlotte Reid, Minerva
By Mareike Smolka, University of Maastricht
By Dr Géraldine Rauchs
By Caitlin Ware, Inserm
By Mareike Smolka, University of Maastricht
By Frank Jessen, University Hospital Cologne
By Sebastian Baez, Ph.D. Candidate
By Dr Eider M Arenaza-Urquijo