AsianScientist (Jul. 30, 2020) – Speaking two languages can help stave off the cognitive decline associated with aging—provided that you do not keep switching back and forth between the two. These are the findings by researchers at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) published in the Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences.
Although some studies have found that being proficient in a second language can mean greater neural efficiency, other studies have concluded that it makes no difference whatsoever. To clarify the potential of bilingualism to protect against age-related cognitive decline, the SUTD team focused on the impact of bilingualism on executive control mechanisms, higher order processes that allow people to maintain their attention by focusing only on relevant information and ignoring distractions.
In the study that was conducted in Singapore, cognitively healthy seniors aged between 60 to 84 years old who were bilingual in Chinese and English were tasked to complete an array of computerized executive control tasks. For a more holistic examination, the researchers measured six different domains of executive control using four different tasks—all of which had been previously associated with bilingualism—while controlling for individual variables such as age, processing speed and fluid intelligence.
The team found that active usage of two languages with less frequent language switching predicted better performance in the goal maintenance and conflict monitoring aspects of executive control. This suggests that bilingualism can be a protective source against cognitive decline in the normal aging process. Importantly, active bilingualism can be seen as a lifestyle factor that could buffer against cognitive declines that are associated with normal aging.
“The effort involved in not switching between languages and ‘staying’ in the target language is more cognitively demanding than switching between languages while actively using both languages. Our study shows that the seniors developed more efficient neural organization at brain regions related to language control, which also overlap with areas involved in executive control,” explained study corresponding author Associate Professor Yow Wei Quin.
The article can be found at: Chan et al. (2020) Active Bilingualism in Aging: Balanced Bilingualism Usage and Less Frequent Language Switching Relates to Better Conflict Monitoring and Goal Maintenance Ability.
Source: Singapore University of Technology and Design; Illustration: Shelly Liew/Asian Scientist Magazine.
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