Tuesday 19 September 2017

Studying languages can help in fight against Alzheimer’s

New research has shown that learning another language could have incredible benefits to our cognitive functions and could even help in the battle against Alzheimer’s and dementia. Photo: Getty Images.
New research has shown that learning another language could have incredible benefits to our cognitive functions and could even help in the battle against Alzheimer’s and dementia. Photo: Getty Images.

Sorcha O'Connor

New research has shown that learning another language could have incredible benefits to our cognitive functions and could even help in the battle against Alzheimer's and dementia.

Studies carried out by the Director of Everest Language School, Anne-Marie Connolly, recently awarded a PhD from Trinity College, explored how learning languages and being bilingual affects the development, function and change of basic cognitive activities.

Dr Connolly discovered that learning a second language, even late in life, can have positive effects on our brains.

She explored the difference in ability of young bilinguals - anyone under seven with a second language - and late bilinguals, which covers anyone over 12 who had a second language.

Her studies showed that late-bilinguals held an advantage, having to work harder to suppress their mother tongue and therefore giving their brain a tougher workout overall.

"The effort that a late-bilingual needs to put into suppressing the dominant mother tongue to select the less-dominant new language requires a far more intensive training regime for the cognitive system", said Dr Connolly.

"This then extends beyond the linguistic system and results in a generalised fortification of the executive control system as a whole."

Dr Connolly also investigated the long-term impact of bilingualism. She compared active bilinguals with passive bilinguals, who had stopped using their second language.

Her investigation concluded there was a clear cognitive advantage for active bilinguals.

This finding is in line with research emerging from labs all around the world where bilingualism has been found to be a factor that promotes healthy cognitive ageing and helps to combat the decline and the symptoms of age-related disorders such as Alzheimer's and dementia.

Dr Connolly attempted to discover how long someone had to be bilingual for before the emergence of positive cognitive effects. Over a six-month window she tested and retested language learners to pinpoint any improvements, as well as using questionnaires, behavioural tests, and EEG.

Improvement

"Overall, I didn't see any improvement in executive control after six months of language learning, however when I split the learners into those who had made the most progress - those who moved up from beginner to elementary to pre-intermediate to intermediate - versus those who made the least progress, those who moved from beginner to elementary, over the course of six months a slight advantage started to emerge for the high-progress learners.

"This may be an indication of the beginning of the bilingual advantage, and I think that if those learners had stayed another six months and allowed me to track them from intermediate to upper to advanced then the results would have been clearer."

Irish Independent

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