We know that bilingualism has all sorts of cultural advantages. The world is larger and more accessible with increased fluency—not to mention that it’s a great way to impress a date.
But now we know that it has health benefits, too.
Using two or more languages on a regular basis has been shown to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. Ellen Bialystok of York University in Toronto has spent more than 30 years researching second-language acquisition, and during that time she has discovered that using a second language frequently helps to armor the brain against deterioration.
According to two different studies, not only did elderly bilingual adults have better cognitive functions, on average, than monolingual elderly adults, but those who developed Alzheimer’s related symptoms also did so five or six years later than those aging adults who only spoke one language regularly.
In order to be effective, one must use both languages frequently—not just when ordering dinner for a special night out. But doing so also improves one’s ability to multitask. Drivers that were bilingual were better able to multitask and continue to perform satisfactorily on driving tests, whereas monolinguists’ performances dropped off more dramatically.
If you’re an adult and you never learned to speak another language fluently, don’t worry. Learning a second language late in life has similar benefits. And in a separate study, late-life language acquisition was shown to prevent more general age related cognitive degeneration, too.
Since we know so little about what causes Alzheimer’s disease and senility, any research that demonstrates an affective activity to help prevent—or delay—what is for many the crippling consequences of aging is reason for excitement.
There are many ways to go about learning a language, and if you’re older than 40, it’s also a great way to broaden your social horizons and increase the size of your community—something that has, by the way, also been show to promote happiness later in life.
So pick up a Spanish textbook, sign up for a Thai language class, or find an online Arabic learning community, make some new friends and live a longer, happier and more lucid life.