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Are You Bilingual? It’s Better for Your Brain

Bilingual Chalkboard

Good, bien or bueno: It's all great news for brain health.

It's not what you say, it's how you say it. Being bilingual—even if you learn a second language later in life—appears to delay the onset of dementia symptoms, according to a new study published in Annals of Neurology that is in line with what other recent research has found on the topic.

"Bilinguals performed significantly better than predicted from their baseline cognitive abilities," writes Thomas Bak, a psychology professor at the University of Edinburgh and the study's lead author. Being bilingual had the most effect on participants' general intelligence and reading abilities.

"Our results suggest a protective effect of bilingualism against age-related cognitive decline," Bak concludes. His team's findings couldn't be explained away by other factors like childhood intelligence, gender or wealth, and the benefits of bilingualism occurred no matter how old people were when they learned a second language.


Train Your Brain

Although your brain isn't a muscle, the same idea applies: You need to exercise it and use it regularly to keep it performing at its best, says Richard D. King, MD, PhD, the director of the Alzheimer's Image Analysis Laboratory in the Center for Alzheimer's Care, Imaging and Research, and an assistant professor of neurology at the University of Utah.

"There's an element of plasticity in your brain, and you're constantly making new connections between neurons," King says. "I suspect that by keeping active and learning new things and pushing yourself to use that, probably the mechanisms of synaptic connection and regeneration are more vibrant."

Utah residents are already ahead of the game when it comes to bilingualism's benefits. "Utah has an unmatched number of bilingual residents of all ages," according to a report by the Economic Development Corporation of Utah. "Collectively, Utah residents speak 90 percent of the world's written languages." The agency attributes Utah's fluency to the large number of overseas missions conducted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The University of Utah teaches nearly two dozen modern world languages. King says the school's continuing-education offerings are a great way for locals to take advantage of brain-boosting bilingualism. "Finding a community to practice with is the best way to develop actual proficiency with the language," he says.