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Language and the brain: How learning a language at any age can support longevity

Language and the brain: How learning a language at any age can support longevity

Did you know that in England, you can receive a signed card from the King when you turn one hundred? While still relatively rare, more and more people are receiving these royal greetings. All around the world, we’re living longer and our chances of reaching our 100th birthday are higher than they’ve ever been.

Practically speaking, we might not crave everlasting life, but our obsession with physical and mental youth is clear. The economics of it are astounding; the global anti-aging market is valued at over 70 billion U.S. dollars per year and is growing.

But before buying all the lotions and serums, are there things we can do to help us live a long and healthy life? Science certainly thinks so. A study of twins in Denmark found that how long you live is only 20% dictated by genetics, and 80% is up to how and where you live. Lifestyle and environment are important for determining longevity, which is good news — we can influence these.

It’s not just about wanting to live longer, it’s about consciously living well.

Blue Zones are parts of the world with unusually low chronic disease rates and high numbers of centenarians — people older than 100 — and scientists have been researching them to uncover the secrets of longevity.

Regular moderate physical exercise supports longevity by keeping our bodies fit and our internal processes like our hormone systems, running smoothly. Communicating with loved ones, and eating well are also key, with a lean towards plant-based diets common among those reaching 100 in Blue Zones.

And then there’s caring for our grey matter; brain health and longevity are linked.

Though science has a long way to go before we fully understand the human brain, we do know that it is responsible for most of our body’s functions and is important in our quest for longer life.

We may lose some of the sponge-like information-absorbing abilities we have when we’re young, but our brains don’t actually become ‘fixed’ in adulthood. They’re still able to develop and be shaped by experiences and learning.

When supporting brain health and longevity, language learning offers a helping hand.

Essentially, learning is a healthy brain’s best friend. Spending time gaining new skills, including a language, can boost brain neuroplasticity — the ability to grow, change, make new connections, and function in a new way.

Learning a new language can improve our brain’s overall function and ability to do essential actions like storing and recalling information, processing memories, concentrating, and problem-solving. Plus, the other skills that develop as you study also support long-term brain function, like effective communication, active listening, and problem-solving. Even short, intense learning periods can boost our attention skills.

Language learning can change our brains and help slow cognitive decline.

Brain scans have revealed something fascinating: language-related parts of our brains can physically change as we learn. A study of adult learners showed growth of the hippocampus, an area that is involved in handling memories, learning, and dealing with emotion. In younger adults, even short-term foreign language learning can lead to these changes in brain physiology. And the hippocampus is an important part of the brain to take care of at any age — its degradation is closely linked to Alzheimer’s disease and struggles with memory as we get older.

While we can’t stop our brains from aging, speaking a second language may slow our age-related cognitive decline. When comparing how mono- or bi-lingual brains age, bi- or multilingualism has been linked to better brain and cognitive function in older adults as well as potentially delaying the onset of dementia.

Bilingual seniors often have better cognition, like the ability to concentrate and switch tasks. This is likely because bilingual brains regularly alternate between languages, and choose which one to use or which to switch off when needed.

But the best part? The brain benefits can be seen even when the second language is learned after childhood.

At any age, new experiences (including studying!) help to strengthen and form new connections in the brain. No matter your level of language learning, combining these novel experiences with practice delivers these benefits.

In adult learners, the biggest improvements in brain function from learning a second language are seen if you’re not already multilingual. If you’re choosing a third or fourth language, consider one with a different alphabet or in another language group, to keep your learning experiences unique.

So, no matter the magic products the anti-aging industry is touting, supporting your brain health is key to longevity. And learning a new language — even later in life — can help you live a longer and healthier life, by strengthening your brain. Brain function improvements in older adults are seen more strongly the longer you’ve been speaking multiple languages. That means there’s no better time to start learning than right now!

Boost your brain with a new languageStudy abroad
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