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Bilingual Seniors Have Sharper Brains

The brains of bilingual seniors work faster and more efficiently than seniors who speak just one language.

The finding was published in the Journal of Neuroscience and came from new research which demonstrated that seniors who have been bilingual since childhood can switch tasks faster than monolingual seniors.

The team of experts, from the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, explained that different patterns of brain activity were seen in lifelong bilinguals compared to their their monolingual peers when switching from task to task.

This illustrates the importance of regularly stimulating mental activity throughout a person's lifetime. Cognitive flexibility (the capability to adjust to unusual or unanticipated situations) and associated "executive" functions decline as people grow older.

Recent reports propose that this decline may reduce with lifelong bilingualism, as a result of the brain constantly switching between languages. One study showed that older bilingual adults make up for age-related declines in brainpower by developing new ways to process language.

However, scientists have been unsure about how brain activity in bilingual people varies from the brain activity of monolinguals.

In order to analyze the brain activity of healthy bilingual seniors (aged 60 to 68), and then compare it to that of healthy monolingual seniors, the scientists, led by Brian T. Gold, PhD, used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) while the subjects performed an assignment that measured their cognitive flexibility.

Although all participants completed the assignment correctly, the experts found that the seniors who spoke two languages completed the task quicker than those who spoke one language, while also utilizing less energy in the frontal cortex (area of the brain responsible for switching tasks).

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