A research study authored by psychology professor Ellen Bialystok and colleagues from York University sought to determine whether language learning was effective at boosting cognitive health among older adults.

Photo by Beth Macdonald on Unsplash

Participants between 65-75 years old, all of whom were monolingual English speakers, were randomly assigned to either the language training group, brain training group, or control group. Participants were instructed to spend 30 minutes per day, 5 days a week, for 16 weeks total to engage in their task. For the language group, their task was to learn Spanish using commercial software. For the brain training group, they were to spend an equivalent amount of time using brain training software. 

Results show that the language group exhibited similar levels of enhancement across various cognitive parameters, relative to the brain training group. This was a surprising conclusion – it suggested that learning a new language involves both working memory and executive function (two measures typically associated only with brain training). Thus, the process of learning a new language, even if you do not become sufficiently fluent in it, may be enough to keep your brain sharp in older adulthood.

The brain training group differed from the language training group in one cognitive parameter – speed. Those assigned to the brain training group had to complete assigned tasks as quickly as possible. By introducing a time constraint, the brain training participants felt more challenged and not able to engage in the task at a leisurely pace. This is one way to make any cognitive task more challenging, since it introduces acute stress which makes the brain work harder. For example, Jed Meltzer, a coauthor of the paper, states that little evidence supports activities like Sudoku as ways to boost brain power, but the addition of time limits can build cognitive reserve. 

Meltzer mentions that biological damage to the brain with old age is unavoidable, but a robust cognitive reserve is protective in maintaining cognitive functions for longer, despite damage. “In general, any engaging mental activity can help build cognitive reserve – learning a musical instrument, learning a language, anything creative,” states Meltzer.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Categorised in:

This post was written by Linda H