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SALT LAKE CITY — Learning a second language as a child could help keep your mind spry as an adult, a new study says.
Lifelong bilinguals — defined as those who learned a second language before age 10 — are quicker to switch cognitive tasks, researchers at the University of Kentucky found.
Brian Gold, an associate professor of anatomy and neurobiology, and his associates tested groups by using a series of colored shapes. In the first task, participants named the shapes by pushing a button. In the second, they were asked to name the color of the shapes by pushing a button. In their final task, researchers alternately asked participants to name the colors and shapes in the series.
Each of the tasks was timed, and bilinguals tended to more quickly switch in the final task between naming shapes and colors than those who spoke only one language. Young adults, bilingual or monolingual alike, were quickest to complete the task.
In a second test of people 60- to 68-years-old, researchers presented the group with the same tasks, but used an fMRI to monitor brain activity.
The scans showed that while completing the tasks, bilingual adults' brain patterns showed that cognitively they were quicker at the task and they used less energy in the frontal cortex than monolinguals.
Researchers say the exercise of constantly switching between languages helps bilingual individuals maintain cognitive flexibility — a quality which tends to decline as the individual ages.
"This suggests that bilingual seniors use their brains more efficiently than monolingual seniors," Gold said. "Together, these results suggest that lifelong bilingualism may exert its strongest benefits on the functioning of frontal brain regions in aging."