Recent Evidence Suggests Bilingualism Improves Later-Life Cognition

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4th June 2014 18:14 - Health

A University of Edinburgh study has shown that bilingualism can improve later-life cognition and delay the onset of dementia.

The research, which was conducted on 853 people, involved giving participants an intelligence test in 1947, when aged 11 years old, and then re-testing the same individuals in 2008-2010.

Recently published results show bilinguals performed significantly better than expected, with general intelligence and reading proving to have the strongest effects.

They study’s results also show that later-life cognition can be improved even when learning additional languages in adulthood.

When re-tested participants were asked whether they had learned languages other than English, how many, at what age they picked the language(s) up and how often they used them in three domains – conversation, reading and media. Individuals were classified as being bilingual if they reported being able to communicate in any languages other than English.

Attendees then completed a number of cognitive tests: General Fluid-Type Intelligence (g-Factor); memory; speed of information processing; Memory House test; vocabulary/reading and verbal fluency.

Of the 853 participants 262 reported to have learned at least one language other than English, 160 picked up two, 61 individuals accomplished three languages, 16 learned four and eight people could speak five.

Results showed that reading, verbal, fluency and general intelligence were affected more so than memory, reasoning and speed of processing.

The findings also suggested that knowing three languages had stronger effects than knowing two, with researchers believing the effects could not be explained by other variables, such as gender, socioeconomic status or immigration.

The study also indicated that participants with a high level of intelligence, based on their childhood IQ, benefitted from early acquisition, whereas individuals with lower levels of intelligence advanced better with late acquisition.

Dr Thomas Bak, from the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, told the BBC the results were “meaningful” and were of “considerable practical relevance.”

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