If you look up “how to stay mentally sharp as you age,” you’ll get a slew of recommendations for keeping your brain in shape as you get older. Suggestions may include doing crossword puzzles, reading, exercising, eating healthy, socializing and more.
But there’s a particular technique for strengthening your brain that has been backed by multiple scientific studies: learning a second language. One category of the benefits of being bilingual relates to cognitive advantages, which can be broken into three interconnected sub-categories — brain growth, dementia protection and stroke recovery. Let’s examine those three topics to learn about how to stay mentally sharp as you age by learning another language.
How To Stay Mentally Sharp As You Age: Why Bilingualism Works
Going Gray, Growing Gray (Matter)
There’s no question that learning another language is good for your brain. But what exactly is going on in there? It primarily comes down to an executive function called inhibitory control, which controls our thoughts and behavior so that we do what is necessary or appropriate, rather than acting impulsively.
People who are bilingual use inhibitory control often — it allows them to effortlessly switch between languages, instead of always responding in their native language out of habit. This process uses the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which is located in the brain’s frontal lobe. Because bilinguals use their ACC more often, they build up more gray matter (tissue that helps process information in the brain) in that region than monolinguals.
And additional gray matter (also called cognitive reserve) means being able to more easily multitask, focus and solve problems. In other words, if you learn another language when you get older, you hair may be getting grayer, but so is your brain — and that’s a very good thing.
Additional gray matter has another powerful benefit, one with the potential to change your quality of life. At least two studies have found that bilingualism can delay the symptoms of dementia for several years.
In one of the studies, conducted by Canadian psychologist Dr. Ellen Bialystok, researchers found that bilinguals show symptoms of dementia four years later than monolinguals, if all other factors are the same.
Another study by researchers in Italy found even more promising results. In this study, people who spoke more than one language developed symptoms of dementia an average of five years later than those who spoke only one language. Bilinguals also showed an ability to cope with a greater level of brain dysfunction.
Both of these studies suggest that bilinguals have built up a cognitive reserve to help their brains compensate for mental decline for several additional years.
A Shorter Road To Stroke Recovery
Another unfortunate side effect of aging is the increased risk of stroke. While learning a language can’t prevent stroke (as far as we know), it can help significantly with the recovery process.
A study by the American Heart Association analyzed the recovery of both bilingual and monolingual stroke patients. 40.5% of bilingual patients had their cognitive function intact post-stroke, compared to 19.6% of monolingual patients. The authors of the study concluded, “Our results suggest that bilingualism leads to a better cognitive outcome after stroke, possibly by enhancing cognitive reserve.”
Once again, staying mentally fit as you get older all comes back to having a cognitive reserve of brain matter. A little extra gray can go a long way.