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Bilingual Adults Have Sharper Brains, Study Suggests

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Being able to speak two languages isn't just useful for traveling to other countries -- it could actually help keep your brain in tip-top shape in older age, a new study suggests.

Researchers from the University of Kentucky College of Medicine found that senior adults who've been bilingual since they were children had better "cognitive flexibility" -- being able to go along with a new or unexpected circumstance -- than those who only knew how to speak one language. The findings are published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

The findings suggest "bilingual seniors use their brains more efficiently than monolingual seniors," study researcher Brian T. Gold, Ph.D. said in a statement. "Together, these results suggest that lifelong bilingualism may exert its strongest benefits on the functioning of frontal brain regions in aging."

The study consisted of two experiments that included 110 adults between ages 60 and 68, who had brain imaging tests done as they did a cognitive flexibility test. Some of the participants only spoke one language, while the others had been bilingual since childhood.

The researchers found that even though both the monolingual and bilingual study participants were able to complete the task, the ones who were bilingual were able to do so more quickly. The brain imaging also showed that their frontal cortex brain regions used less energy than the monolingual seniors as they did the task.

Previous research has suggested that being bilingual could actually help to protect the brain from age-related disease. A study published last year in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences shows that being able to speak two languages could help to delay the onset of Alzheimer's.

HuffPost Canada reported on the findings:

According to Dr. Ellen Bialystok, the lead researcher in the study, bilingual adults were found to have a greater cognitive reserve as they got older that allows the mind to run longer and more smoothly.

"It is rather like a reserve tank in a car. When you run out of fuel, you can keep going for longer because there is a bit more in the safety tank," said Bialystok in an interview with the Guardian.

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