According to a new study appearing in the Annals of Neurology, researchers found that speaking two or more languages has a positive effect on cognitive functioning later on in a person’s life, possibly slowing down cognitive decline due to aging. Although previous research has investigated the cognitive effect of learning more than one language, ruling out “reverse causality” has proven to be complicated.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, dementia is a general term for a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life. Memory loss is an example. Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia.
“Our study is the first to examine whether learning a second language impacts cognitive performance later in life while controlling for childhood intelligence,” said lead author Dr. Thomas Bak from the Centre for Cognitive Aging and Cognitive Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh.
In this latest study, researchers used data from the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936, comprised of 835 native speakers of English born and living in the area of Edinburgh, Scotland. The participants received an intelligence test in 1947 at age 11 years and then underwent retests in their early 70s, between 2008 and 2010. 262 participants reported the ability to communicate in at least one language other than English. 195 participants learned the second language before age 18.
The study findings indicate that those who spoke two or more languages had superior cognitive abilities compared to what would be expected from their baseline. The researchers observed the strongest effects in general intelligence and reading, present in those who learned their second language early as well as later in life.