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Could Welsh speakers have better brain function? Language learning & health.

As Ireland gear up to face the Welsh men in round 3 of the Six Nations today, I’ve been finding out some interesting facts about the Welsh.

  1. 1 in 3 people live in rural areas, compared to only 1 in 5 in England.

  2. They are outnumbered by SHEEP!

  3. Almost 1/5 speak Welsh (562,000 people).

The number of Welsh speakers intrigued me in particular. Of course these people also speak English, and likely learned English first (as is often the case in Ireland with our native tongue). This got me wondering, are there any health benefits for people who master TWO languages?

I have heard before that life-long learning is beneficial for our cognitive health. Cognitive health takes into account our ability to think, learn and remember things. Maintaining our cognitive health is important, and it is becoming increasingly so as our population ages. As we age, our cognition declines and puts us at a greater risk of diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia. Rates of these diseases have increased, and will continue to do so, because we are living longer. There are some medications available which reduce symptoms, however prevention is always best. That means we have to find ways to preserve of our cognitive health.

So, can second language learning, or bilingualism, help to maintain cognitive health?

First of all, can we all learn a second language? It is often noted that language learning is difficult (particularly Welsh!), so for those not academically inclined language learning may not seem appealing. But, the data suggests that anyone who learns a second language will improve their cognition as a result:

  • Bak et al (2014) used the Lothian cohort to assess the impact of second language learning on health. This cohort included babies born in the Lothians in Scotland who were followed from birth. At age 11, those who learned a second language achieved better than expected cognitive results. In particular, those children who received low intelligence scores in early childhood who went on to learn a second language achieved significantly better cognition results than predicted. This indicates that bilingualism leads to improved cognition. It also indicates that having high cognition (or brain function) is not necessary for language learning.

  • Estranga et al (2017) found that bilinguals performed better the monolinguals on working memory, task switching and visual-spatial activities. However, they also noted that those who were bilingual tended to be more educated, have a higher-level occupation and scored higher on vocabulary tests, compared to monolinguals. To ensure that the better cognitive function was not a result of longer schooling or higher income, analysis was run which accounted for these differences. These further tests still suggested that bilinguals have better memory, task switching and visual-spatial function. That means that language learning improves brain function independently of education level, occupation etc.

  • These two studies indicate that second language learning increases brain function!

How does this work?

  • Well much of the data suggests that learning a second language actually changes brain structure!

  • Olsen et al (2015) assessed brain structure in monolinguals and bilinguals. Bilinguals had a higher volume of white matter, compared to monolinguals. White matter volume corresponds to brain function. Meaning that bilingualism can increase brain volume!

  • Therefore, if one learns a second language (thereby increasing their brain function), they may reduce the risk of age-related cognitive decline and associated diseases.

  • A review paper (that looked at all data on this subject) by Gold (2015) concluded that bilingualism may delay Alzheimer’s disease symptoms by protecting executive control (the cognitive processes that influence our behaviour and ability to complete tasks).

If you are thinking “I’m an adult I’ve missed my chance”, you’re wrong!

  • According to Klein et al (2014), although simultaneous acquisition of two languages in early life, leads to higher levels of language proficiency, it has the least impact on brain structure. The authors suggest that the greatest changes to brain structure come from learning a second language after gaining proficiency in the native language.

  • So there are actually more benefits (in terms of brain health!) if you learn a language in later childhood, or even adulthood. And, as other studies suggest, these changes may protect your cognitive health and reduce your risk of cognitive disease!

We often talk about “modifiable risk factors” in relation to diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers, but rarely discuss them in relation to our brains! But, the data indicates that lifelong learning can reduce our risk of cognitive decline in later life.

Take home message:

Lifelong education can help to preserve your cognitive health and reduce your risk of cognitive decline in older age.

Learning a second language can improve your cognition and even change your brain structure, so give it a go! There are lots of ways to get started- there are apps available (I use the Duolingo app to learn languages for free!), online classes and courses, books and tapes and some councils run free/low cost language courses.

You can find some Welsh phrases here.

Lifelong learning does not have to be language learning. If you don't fancy language learning, you could try learning a new skill, taking up a new hobby, taking part in courses or just reading on a range of subjects. These are all ways to keep learning throughout life.

Diolch am ddarllen!

(Thanks for reading!)

Lots of love,

Little O x

#evidencebased #advice #HealthyLiving #nutritionist

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