The process of aging usually involves a decrease in the flexibility of one’s cognitive capacities. For example, elderly people often experience more trouble with switching between tasks that both require a significant amount of attention. Recent research has no shown that lifelong bilingualism has a positive effect on this process: people who are born and raised speaking two or more languages, maintain youthful cognitive control abilities in aging.
While being in an fMRI-scanner, 70 participants had to perform two computer tasks in which they had to recognize forms and colors respectively. The two tasks alternated each other in unexpected time intervals. It turned out that the bilingual persons were not only faster in recognizing the correct forms or colors, but that their performing brain areas also used much less energy in doing so.
The researchers therefore conclude that lifelong bilingualism offsets age-related declines in the neural efficiency for cognitive control processes. A probable explanation is that bilingualism is like a form of intensive training for the brain. In bilingual people the brain constantly has to switch between languages, based on environmental input and linguistic contexts. That is a very complex and demanding process. It is very probable that this constant performance makes the brain more efficient, also in the execution of more simple tasks like switching between the tasks in the experiment.
These new results add up to the already known positive effect of bilingualism to other cognitive impairments in aging, like dementia. Although it is not exactly clear how these processes are affected, it is certain that bilingualism is a feature that has not only cultural benefits, but that leads to a better cognitive health as well.
Gold, B., Kim, C., Johnson, N., Kryscio, R., & Smith, C. (2013). Lifelong Bilingualism Maintains Neural Efficiency for Cognitive Control in Aging Journal of Neuroscience, 33 (2), 387-396 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3837-12.2013