Bilingualism May Keep the Mind Young

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on June 14, 2004
From the WebMD Archives

June 14, 2004 -- Two languages may be better than one when it comes to keeping the mind young. A new study shows that being fluent in two languages may help prevent some of the effects of aging on brain function.

Researchers found that people who were bilingual most of their lives were better able to stay focused on a task amidst a rapidly changing environment compared with people who only spoke one language.

The ability to keep one's attention on a task is known as fluid intelligence, and it is one of the first aspects of brain function to deteriorate as people get older.

Researchers suggest that that the ability to stay focused and to manage attention while ignoring irrelevant information may involve some of the same brain processes involved in using two languages. This means bilingualism may offer a wide range of benefits for keeping the mind sharp and fighting the effects of aging.

Bilingualism May Counter Effects of Aging

In the study, which appears in this month's issue of the journal Psychology and Aging, researchers compared the reaction time of a task performed by a group of bilingual and monolingual middle-aged (30- to 59-year-olds) and older (60- to 88-year-olds). The task measured brain thinking processes known to decline with age.

For example, in one test the participants watched flashing squares on a computer screen and were asked to press a particular colored key when they saw a square in a certain location of the screen. Half of the squares were presented on the same side of the screen where the correct key was located and the other half of the squares were on the opposite side of the screen to where the correct key was located.

Then the number of squares was also increased and other distractions were introduced to analyze reaction time.

Researchers found that in all phases of the testing, both younger and older bilingual adults performed the task faster than those who only spoke one language, regardless of positioning of the squares or the speed in which the squares were presented.

More importantly, researchers say that the bilingual participants were also less distracted by unnecessary information.

All of the bilinguals in the study had used their two languages everyday since they were 10 years old, and researchers say that the life-long experience of managing two languages may prevent some of the negative effects of aging on processing of distracting information.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Bialystock, E. Psychology and Aging, June 2004; vol 19: pp 290-303. News release, American Psychological Association.

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